Would Microsoft really bring Office to Linux?

Is an expanded base of Office users worth sacrificing yet another reason to stick with Windows?

There's been a rumor floating around over the past few days that Microsoft is considering making a Linux version of its Office productivity software.

It's definitely no more than a rumor at this point, originating as it apparently did in the report of a single writer based on hearsay at the Free and Open source Software Developers' European Meeting (FOSDEM) in Brussels last weekend.

"I was informed that Microsoft is having a 'meaningful look' at a full Linux port of Office thanks to Linux showing signs of commercial viability on the desktop," wrote Michael Larabel in a Tuesday post on Phoronix, a Linux-focused news site, citing an unnamed source.

'Rumors or speculation'

The rumor immediately took off from there, and now it's all over the Web. Could it be true?

Well, I've reached out to Microsoft, but--not surprisingly--all I got was this in an email:

"Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation." -- Microsoft Spokesperson

That's pretty much what I expected. Now that I've got it, however, let's just say I'm going to need some convincing that this rumor might really reflect reality.

Feeling the pinch?

Now, there's no denying that Linux is increasingly being viewed as commercially viable.

Perhaps most notably, Valve is now beta-testing a native Steam client for Linux, causing no end of excitement for Linux gamers everywhere and apparently inspiring similar moves by other game makers. Last year was a very big year for Linux in that respect, and some are even suggesting that Linux could be the next big gaming platform.

That's an "ouch" for Microsoft's already uncertain gaming position.

Then, too, there has been the growing number of hardware vendors coming out with PCs that offer Linux preloaded--not to mention the ever-expanding Chromebook phenomenon.

Not at all good for Windows.

It's true, in short, that Microsoft is probably feeling the pinch of Linux's growing acceptance; if you can't beat 'em, as the old saying goes, you might as well join 'em. After all, Microsoft was recently a LinuxCon sponsor, among other contributions.

(Phoronix's Larabel was also the one who first picked up on Valve's plans, as far as I remember.)

Cost vs. benefit

On the other hand, Microsoft Office has always been a big cash cow for the company, and the new Office 2013 and Office 365 are still hot off the proverbial presses.

It's already the case that some users are questioning whether these new entries are worth the money, particularly in light of all the free and open alternatives out there and widely embraced by Linux users.

Microsoft also doesn't exactly have a history of embracing Linux. A "cancer," in fact, is what Steve Ballmer once called the free and open source operating system. Even OpenOffice has felt Redmond's anti-open-source wrath.

Would Redmond really take such a step to expand the base of Office users at the cost of eliminating yet another hook to keep users on Windows?

What about Chrome OS?

That's far from clear. At best, the most I can envision is that Microsoft might offer a version of its browser-based Office 365 for Linux users.

An even better idea, though, could be to port Office to Chrome OS and thereby "ride on the Chromebook's coattails," as Linux Advocates blogger Dietrich Schmitz recently suggested. That, in turn, "would give them entrée to the Chromebook market of extensions," Schmitz pointed out.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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