Patent Ruling Forces Thousands to Upgrade Office

Changes to some versions of the Office productivity suite may affect more businesses than originally believed, as Microsoft revises certain versions of the software to address a patent ruling.

Microsoft warned of the upcoming switch last month, saying that corporate customers who move existing software to new computers will have to use modified versions of Office XP and Office 2003, which contain the Access database application. The software maker downplayed the impact of the switch, saying it would likely affect a small percentage of installed users of its popular document management tools.

Numbers Higher Than Expected

A study released by AssetMetrix on Monday, however, said that its own research found that more than 20 percent of all corporate users have a version of Office in place that was affected by the forced upgrade.

Companies that replace computers and want to move existing software onto them — which could be a significant number as companies await the arrival of Windows Vista before performing major software upgrades — will have to take the change into account, the firm said.

“As future installations of Office and Access delivered by technology and service providers must be of the new version, it is important that companies upgrade their existing installations,” said AssetMetrix CEO Jeff Campbell.

Campbell said his firm analyzed almost 600,000 PCs, most in North America, and found that 22 percent of the installed Office versions would be affected by the need to upgrade.

“This is quite a significant amount of affected installations,” he added.

Ripple Effect

The change stems from a ruling against Microsoft last year, in which a jury found that the company violated a patent held by Guatemalan inventor Carlos Armando Amado. Microsoft was ordered to pay close to US$9 million in damages for infringing the patent, which dated from 1994.

Microsoft said it would make changes to Office to alter how Access interacts with Excel, the spreadsheet program. Within the past few weeks, Microsoft began informing major corporate customers directly of the need to use new versions of Office XP and Office 2003 in all new installations.

Campbell said the problem could be significant for network administrators, especially those with strict policies requiring that all computers on a network have the same version of a software. Such policies are meant to simplify upgrades, security patches and other maintenance.

Microsoft noted that the changes only apply to new installations and that customers are not exposed to legal liability in cases where they follow upgrade guidelines, making the measurement of existing versions a poor way to measure the scope of the impact.

Taking Action

“Most businesses will need to take some action,” said Gartner analyst Michael Silver. Many enterprises are not up to speed with Microsoft’s Service Pack upgrade schedule and may need to apply multiple upgrades in order to catch up to be in compliance.

“Relatively few companies are likely to be in the middle of an Office deployment that includes Access 2002 or 2003,” Silver added. “However, most refresh a portion of their PC installed base each year and reimage broken PCs on a daily basis — and this likely constitutes a new installation.”

Those new installations of the patched software would likely require at least cursory testing to ensure they interact with other applications on a network to avoid problems, which could add to the cost and expense of any switching.

It’s not clear what the penalties might be for a company that does not comply, Silver noted, and whether Microsoft will enforce the patching requirement itself. One easier way around the requirements would be for businesses to install versions of Office that do not have the Access database, which is often one of the least heavily used of the applications contained in the bundle.

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