From Right to Left, Without Microsoft

Microsoft Israel was smart enough to do a fairly high-level conversion of Word into Hebrew, and was thus able to conquer the market and trample all the local companies that developed word-processing programs.

About 10 days ago, there was a gathering in Tel Aviv for all those interested in the Linux open-code operating system and in the development of additional applications using the same open-code method.

The conference included an historic moment: The organizers distributed hundreds of CD-ROMs containing a beta version of the set of office programs called Open Office, which had been converted into Hebrew by Sun and IBM, with the assistance of the finance ministry.

The one that stands to lose from the Hebrew version of Open Office is Microsoft, which has been putting up a smoke screen for the past five years - investing in the Xbox video games system, in games and in complex programs for organizations. Recently, it even sacrificed billions to get into the wristwatch market.

Why? To cover up the fact that it basically has just two sources of profit: the Windows operating system and the Office package of office programs.

Unlike Windows, which was developed by Microsoft and whose entire profits flow into its coffers, the Linux operating system was developed by thousands of volunteers from all over the world. They contributed lines of code, thereby helping to create a freely distributed operating system.

But there is still an industry surrounding Linux. Companies provide it with support and service in return for a fee. This is not just a different kind of business model, it's a different kind of ethic that constitutes an alternative philosophy to that of Microsoft.

Open Office was not born in the usual way. There was no single group of developers from around the world who were brought together to create the package of office programs. It was the Sun Microsystems company, a long-time rival of Microsoft, that started the process rolling after it acquired the Star software company. The latter developed a package of office programs called Star Office. Sun is continuing to develop and sell Star Office but it is giving earlier versions of the program, free of charge, to the community of open-code developers, who are using it as a basis for the development of Open Office.

In Israel, Office is especially tricky because Hebrew is written from right to left, not vice-versa. As a result, office programs in Hebrew aren't a common sight. Microsoft Israel was smart enough to do a fairly high-level conversion of Word into Hebrew, and was thus able to conquer the market and trample all the local companies that developed word-processing programs. (Does anyone remember Einstein, Q-Text, Aleph-Bet or Dagesh?)

Microsoft is not an evil company. It's just a company with no competitors. Through brilliant moves, it has been able to completely dominate the field of personal computers, which have become the basic manufacturing units in our modern technological world. Its stranglehold on the Western world is unparalleled: There are several auto manufacturers, airplane manufacturers, drug manufacturers, etc. - but in the world of operating systems for personal computers, there is just one company: Microsoft.

Unfortunately, for fans of competition, Linux is far from being able to threaten Microsoft in the home computer market. In the business market, it can be a little more of a player.

This is why the combined effort of the finance ministry, IBM Israel and Sun Israel to supply a worthy alternative to Microsoft Office may be the most important step taken in the Israeli software industry in the past decade. It's in the field of office programming that a real change can be made.

In recent years, Microsoft has been cramming its Office package with capabilities no one needs. The estimate used to be that most consumers used only about 20 percent of the capabilities of the Word word-processing program, the central component of the Microsoft Office package; nowadays, the average computer user avails himself to less than 10 percent of the product's capabilities.

This is the 10 percent that Open Office is offering - for free. There is no reason the Israeli school system shouldn't start using these free programs, rather than the Microsoft Office programs that cost thousands of shekels per school. There is no reason the public or private sector should not use the Open Office package and save tens of millions of shekels per year. There is no reason that private customers should pay for or illegally obtain the Microsoft Office programs when Open Office is available to all.

Microsoft has not faced any real competition in the consumer market since the mid-1990s, when it received a shock from a small company called Netscape, which developed the first Internet browser. Microsoft's hysterical reaction dragged it into that famous antitrust court case, which it survived unscathed.

Now, Israeli computer users have another rare opportunity to force Microsoft to work a little harder for the money we unwillingly pay it. But not to worry - the profit will all be ours.