Microsoft Word Ban: Maybe it Wouldn't be so Bad

It looks like Microsoft has the advantage -- at least for now -- in its David vs. Goliath legal skirmish with Canadian software developer i4i, which recently won a patent infringement suit against the software giant.

A quick recap: Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Davis halted the sale of Microsoft’s ubiquitous word processors -- Word 2003 and Word 2007 -- in their current form after October 10. But a federal appeals court yesterday granted Redmond’s request to suspend the injunction. The ongoing battle centers on Word’s capability to create custom XML documents, a capability that i4i says infringes on its patent.

It’s extremely unlikely that Word will cease to exist. If i41 prevails, Microsoft will likely disable the offending feature, some patent experts predict. But what if it didn’t? Microsoft has warned of computer Armageddon if it’s not allowed to sell Word in its current form.

Computerworld’s Gregg Keizer, quoting from Microsoft’s emergency motion filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals, summarizes this dire scenario:

" 'Microsoft and its distributors (which include retailers such as Best Buy and OEMs such as HP and Dell) face the imminent possibility of a massive disruption in their sales,’ Microsoft argued in the motion. ‘If left undisturbed, the district court's injunction will inflict irreparable harm on Microsoft by potentially keeping the centerpiece of its product line out of the market for months,’ the firm's lawyers added. ‘The injunction would block not only the distribution of Word, but also of the entire Office suite, which contains Word and other popular programs.’ ”

Rubbish? You bet. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that Microsoft was forced to halt all sales of Word. Would the computing world as we know it cease to spin? Hardly.

First, there are plenty of alternative word processors out there, most of which read Word files perfectly well. Sure, there might be a few formatting glitches, but that’s to be expected during any file conversion. Microsoft Office users, particularly those who rely heavily on the well-honed integration between Excel, Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint, would experience the most problems. But, again, the ban would affect new sales of Word, not existing copies. So users would have time to develop workarounds.

Plus, there’d be one big silver lining to a Microsoft Word ban: A true universal document format could take hold, one that replaces today’s defacto standard -- Microsoft’s doc/docx -- that’s tied too closely to the whims of one software vendor.

Word ban? Sure, why not?

Contact Jeff Bertolucci via Twitter (@jbertolucci) or at jbertolucci.blogspot.com.

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