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OSS collaboration software follows historical office software trend

If the open source movement has anything to say about it, 20 years from now users will look back at Office and Notes as archaic as Data General CEO, Digital Equipment’s (DEC’s) All-in-One, IBM PROFS and Wang Office appear today.

IBM Lotus Notes and Microsoft Office dominate the enterprise collaboration space to such an extent in 2008 that it is hard to remember when users had to choose personal productivity tools a la carte from choices such as WordPerfect and 1-2-3. Twenty-five years ago, electronic mail was strictly a business tool and “texting instant messages” was something only the most knowledgeable systems administrators did. Basically 1980s-era texting required working at the core of time-sharing operating systems (OS); admins sent short bursts from OS process to OS process and only if they knew which process the intended recipient had “open” at the time.  The most popular IM of the 1980s was probably “Log off immediately; the system is about to crash.”



Still the IBM PROFS (Professional Office System) email used in the U.S. White House in the 1980s was a ‘star witness’ in congressional investigations into what was called the Iran/Contra Scandal. Robert Moskowitz in the March 1988 issue of Software Magazine wrote this about proprietary enterprise collaboration suites: “Every major vendor provides its own office automation system with a proprietary file structure and data format… these disparate file structures create barriers to cross-vendor document exchanges.” The vendors he was referring to at the time are long forgotten names such as Data General, Digital, and Wang. The documents referred to were very primitive text-oriented files that proudly advertised their ability to replicate the look and feel of IBM Selectric typewriter “output.” However Moskowitz said “Data General's CEO system can exchange true compound documents--text, graphics, spreadsheets and even voice in a single file—(as long as it was) within the single-vendor environment.”

It is because of this primitive functionality and vendor incompatibility that Notes and Office rose to dominate collaboration within enterprises during the 1990s (see illustration) and to the present day. It was not because of monopolistic efforts by either IBM or Microsoft. Enterprises needed to be able to more easily exchange information with suppliers and customers as well as within their own legal entity; no one used the term ‘firewall’ then. Then market forces narrowed the choices and increased the interoperability without the need for standards bodies or any kind of government intervention.

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