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Microsoft Word ban takes Canadian partners by surprise

The news a Texas court has ruled against Microsoft in a patent infringement case and banned sales of Word in the U.S. caught many Canadian partners off guard, but they're confident Microsoft will find a resolution

The news yesterday that a Texas court ruling that could ban the sale of Microsoft Word in the United States caught Canadian channel partners by surprise, but the channel appears confident Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) will find a way to resolve the dispute before we start seeing boxes pulled off shelves.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found in favour (read the ruling) of a Toronto-based company, i4i, which claimed Microsoft Word violated certain patents relating to the creation of custom XML documents. The court awarded US$290 million in damages to i4i, and issued an injunction on sales of Microsoft Word that make use of the patented technology.

Microsoft has been given 60 days to comply with the injunction and an appeal could see the implementation delayed, so a ban may be some time off yet. For its part, Microsoft declined a request for interview but indicated in a statement it did plan to appeal the ruling.

“We are disappointed by the court’s ruling,” said Microsoft spokesperson Kevin Kutz. “We believe the evidence clearly demonstrated that we do not infringe and that the i4i patent is invalid. We will appeal the verdict”

The word “banned” certainly caught the eye of Peter MacKenzie, vice-president, sales and marketing with Envision IT. A Mississauga, Ont.-based solution provider and Microsoft partner, Envision IT does a lot of business around Microsoft’s Sharepoint and Office products.

“We’ve seen this kind of thing before with Microsoft and some other vendors, and from a partner perspective it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s going to affect us at all any time in the near future,” said MacKenzie. “I’d expect it would probably never come to any actual ban, but in the mean-time it’s full-steam ahead for us in Canada. It’s just more of an eyebrow-raiser than anything.”

As a dedicated Microsoft partner, MacKenzie said they’ve never really looked seriously at alternatives to Word of the Office suite, and even with the publicity around the court ruling he doesn’t expect Envision IT’s customers will begin asking them to.

“Like us, they’ve seen it before and I’d expect if there’s any kind of risk involved our good friends at Microsoft would give their business partners a heads-up on how to handle it, as they’ve always been very good at supporting us in the field,” said MacKenzie.

News of the Word ban was a shock to Stuart Crawford, vice-president of business development for Bulletproof Infotech, a Calgary-based solution provider and Microsoft partner. Crawford drew parallels to the patent rulings that dogged Research in Motion and the BlackBerry for some years.

At a moment, the ruling only impacts the U.S. market so as a Canadian partner Crawford isn’t overly worried. But he said he is worried about what could happen going-forward if Microsoft doesn’t find a way to settle the dispute.

“We do rely a lot on Microsoft Word and the Office products for our clients,” said Crawford. “I’m sure over the next few weeks as this hits the press we’ll be hearing from our clients, asking about alternatives.”

What he’ll advise them, said Crawford, is not to jump the gun. He’s confident Microsoft will find a way to resolve it, and in Canada they can still provide users with Word, as before.

“Microsoft won’t take Word off the market, I know that’s not going to happen,” said Crawford. “It may change some of the technology just a little bit (to comply with the ruling).”

The XML technology at the heart of the ruling is core to where Microsoft has been taking Word for some years now said Michelle Warren, president of Toronto’s MW Research & Consulting. However, with Microsoft’s decision to appeal she sees the vendor buying plenty of time to address the issue.

“While the IT channel community must be aware of the situation, it would surprise me if this doesn’t get taken care of before things have to change at the user level,” said Warren, whether it’s a revamped word, a settlement with i4i or an overturning of the ruling.

However, in the interim, she said resellers should be armed with information on alternatives for customers that would prefer to stay away from Word for now, such as Open Office, Google Docs or Word Perfect.

“Microsoft Word is the de facto standard within most organizations so there will likely be some discussion but I’d be surprised if there was a mass migration away from Word,” said Warren. “At the end of the day though information is power, so resellers should be armed.”

If it does come to a ban the biggest impact would likely be on PC vendors, OEMs and LARs said Paul Edwards, director of SMB and channels research with IDC Canada. For most other partners, the impact could be negligible.

“The question is what’s going to be the alternative?” said Edwards. “Word is just so ubiquitous. Most business have used Word for years, it goes back to usability and productivity. Most companies are going to want to continue to use those kinds of apps.”

There is the potential to move users to online applications, said Edwards, but the challenge for the channel will be monetizing on such applications. In the interim, he expects many alternative vendor will be looking to capitalize on the Word situation.