The web has been buzzing with rumors of Office 2010 and today (July 13) Microsoft has finally announced that Office 2010 Technical Preview. TechCrunch has a decent write up on Office 2010. The biggest news however is not the new bells and whistles this release promises to bring. Most of us use less than 20% of the function anyway. The most important is the introduction of the free cloud-based Office products. Before you get the idea that Microsoft decided to go non-profit and this is some sort of a philanthropic stunt, read on.

Just like with SQL Server Express, Microsoft will be releasing limited function (crippled ?) versions for free. This is not an act of generosity. With the introduction of Google Apps, and the recent announcement of Chrome operating system by Google, Microsoft finds the very core of its revenue generating engine under attack. Microsoft generates 46% of its revenue and 50% of its profit from the Office products so anyone who aims for this business is a serious threat. And it is not just the price that is under pressure here. Google has been quite effective in getting across the benefits of cloud computing. Many customers, including enterprise users like the idea of not having to install software on their machines and instead use their spreadsheets and documents from a data center that is managed by Google. Besides the obvious cost savings, many like the more simplicity and collaboration that cloud based offerings like Google Apps, Lotus Live, Zoho, and Microsoft’s own Office Live. The movement to cloud based productivity products is undeniable. Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s CTO said so himself:

… at some point in time every major enterprise, every company, every ISV is going to have some blend of software that runs on-premises and some that runs in the cloud …

When MySQL and other free database alternatives were threatening SQL Server, Microsoft offered SQL Server Express (and MSDE before that). SQL Server Express proved good enough for people who would not have paid money for a DBMS in the first place but too limiting (maximum 4GB of data, 1CPU and 1GB of memory) to be useful for anyone who actually needs a DBMS. In this shrewd move Microsoft was able to maintain its position on the entry level of the database market and at the same time protect SQL Server revenue.

Before I get accused of hypocrisy, let me explain why I think DB2 Express-C is different. It is true that just like Microsoft SQL Server, DB2 Express-C is a free version of the commercial DBMS i.e. it is not an open source DBMS like MySQL or PostgreSQL. So, in this respect DB2 Express-C and SQL Server are very much alike i.e. very capable free versions of their priced siblings. However, one very important thing that that distinguishes DB2 Express-C is that it does not have the crippling limit on the size of the database that it can manage. Let me say it again, DB2 Express-C can manage as much data as you can collect and as much data as your disk subsystem will hold. It may be a terabyte or 20 terabytes. Microsoft SQL Server Express, on the other hand will stop working once the amount of data reaches 4GB. 4GB in today’s day and age is a few photographs. Does DB2 Express-C have limitations? Yes it does but these are limitations are on resources that it will consume. Specifically, DB2 Express-C will not take advantage of main memory that is above 2GB. This means that you can not make it go faster by adding memory in to your server. You can use this memory for other tasks running on that server though but DB2 itself will not benefit from it. DB2 will also not get advantage from having more than 2 processor cores in your server. Just as with memory, you can add additional CPU resources but DB2 will not go faster. However, if you do want it to go faster by adding memory and CPU resources, you can purchase an optional low cost subscription that will double both memory (to 4GB) and CPU (to 4 cores) and will also add functionality like high availability disaster recovery, data replication, and, of course 24*7 technical support. In other words, DB2 Express-C is not intentionally crippled like SQL Server Express. So, will Microsoft Office deliver truly free alternative to Google Apps? If history is an indicator, I would bet that Microsoft is likely to follow the same path it did with SQL Server Express i.e. create a free product that is good enough for people who would not have paid for Microsoft Office in the first place but limit its function in such a way as not to undermine the money engine called Office.

From a very selfish point of view, I am very interested in understanding how the new web-based Office products will integrate with enterprise data. I am a heavy user of Excel which I use to analyze data in DB2. I can connect to DB2 using either ODBC/OLE DB/ODBO or Web Services (DB2 can publish data as SOAP/XML web services). I also make extensive use of .NET programming of the Office. Not at all sure any of this will be there, at least there is no clarity at this time.

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