For many years, Microsoft's profits from Office and Windows have allowed the company to invest in new markets, such as gaming, at an early- stage ROI that would make most VCs queasy. The Xbox-driven Project Natal may now return the favor and help Microsoft Office outpace its competition -- an unexpected, but pleasant, quid pro quo.
I'm referring in particular to the open source office productivity movement, specifically OpenOffice.org, which could find itself at a competitive disadvantage if Microsoft can execute with Project Natal in the enterprise and OpenOffice.org doesn't change its current course and speed.
[ Also on InfoWorld: "OpenOffice.org considers an Office 2007 ribbon user interface" | Keep up with the latest open source news with InfoWorld's open source newsletter and topic center. ]
Microsoft describes Project Natal as "a revolutionary new way to play: no controller required. See a ball? Kick it, hit it, trap it or catch it. If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips or speak you and your friends can jump into the fun -- the only experience needed is life experience."
While Project Natal sounds like the real deal for gamers, the technology has applications within the home, and more importantly, in the office. Ina Fried writes that "at last week's analyst meeting, Bach and Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer, also outlined the broad appeal of being able to interact more directly with computer interfaces. After Bach tried his hand at some Natal gaming, Mundie offered a demonstration of how gesture recognition might function in a work setting, saying that the desktop PC of the future could in fact encompass the entire office."
Project Natal is clearly Microsoft's response to Nintendo's Wii. Without a doubt, the Wii has forced the gaming industry to rethink the gaming user experience. The Wii has pushed competitors, including Microsoft, to -- pardon the pun -- raise their game. End-users have obviously benefited from simpler and more fun user experiences.
OpenOffice.org could learn a thing or two from Nintendo and the Wii. OpenOffice.org appears content to compete by offering a similar user experience to Microsoft Office 2007. This is surprising to some users who view the user interface (UI) shift from Microsoft Office 2003 to Microsoft Office 2007 as a reason to consider OpenOffice.org in the first place. If users are going to face a discontinuity in the UI, why isn't OpenOffice.org pulling a Nintendo move and innovating in an underserved portion of the market?
OK, I know why. I recognize that technology like the Wii controller or Project Natal doesn't just materialize. Often, significant research and related funding is required. Whatever Sun invested in OpenOffice.org -- and I don't know the numbers -- it's clearly not the same level of R&D spending that a Nintendo or Microsoft would have at their disposal. And with Oracle taking the reigns of OpenOffice.org, it remains to be seen if project budgets will be maintained.
Considering the profit that Microsoft derives from Office, there is clearly room for disruption. But this won't happen if vendors simply seek to re-create the Microsoft Office user experience. And if Microsoft does indeed introduce Project Natal technology into a future Microsoft Office release, competing by "doing what Microsoft does, only cheaper" won't be an easy road to travel.
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p.s.: I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."