In the latest example of its unabashed aggressiveness, Microsoft Corp. plans to give a special marketing seal of approval to software products that adopt the same look and feel as the company's own suite of applications.
Given Microsoft's dominance of personal computing software, many software developers doubtless will conform to Microsoft's specifications. But makers of competing word-processing and other applications will find themselves under further pressure as users opt for programs that integrate well with popular Microsoft products.
The move by Microsoft to strengthen its hold on the software market comes even as the company is the subject of a Justice Department antitrust investigation into claims that it has used its dominant role in personal computer software to quash competition.
Under the program, which is to be unveiled next week, software products that follow specifications designed to make them work well with Microsoft's Office software suite will be permitted to carry the logo Microsoft Office Compatible. Excluded from the program will be products that compete with key Microsoft applications, such as word processing and spreadsheets.
"Getting the pieces to work together is the key," said Judy Chase, product manager of Microsoft Office. She said recent Microsoft studies have shown that consumers place more importance on integration and consistency among applications than on new features.
The program will strengthen Microsoft's position in the rapidly growing market for software suites, which are sets of applications that work well together and sell for a discount.
"This strengthens their hand in a very important segment of the market," said Chuck Stegman, group director for software at the computer research firm Dataquest Inc. "If you are a world leader, the strategy is to get third parties to fill in holes in your product line."
Microsoft grabbed 90% of the $844-million market for personal computer software suites last year, according to Dataquest. The company has sold 1 million copies of an upgraded version of Office since its release in November. The suites have helped sell word-processing and spreadsheet products that might have lost out in one-on-one combat to products such as Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect.
But some critics worry that the polarization of software applications into two or three major camps, such as the Microsoft or Lotus suites, could slow innovation by restricting the flexibility of developers. Chase counters that the new program merely sets basic standards at the level of the interface with users and encourages developers to be innovative in other areas.
Calera Recognition Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., for example, will soon offer a version of its Wordscan optical character-recognition program customized to work with Microsoft Office. Since it uses many of the same commands and menus, new users can use the program without having to learn a lot of complex new commands.
Software vendors benefit by getting a chance to take advantage of Microsoft's substantial marketing muscle. Next fall, Microsoft will distribute compact discs that include demonstrations of compatible applications to each buyer of Microsoft Office. At the huge Comdex computer trade show, Microsoft will offer booths to the 25 software vendors that expect to display Office-compatible applications at the show.
In a talk in Anaheim on Tuesday, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates announced that the next-generation version of the company's hugely popular Windows software will include some form of built-in access to the Internet computer network.
Gates said the Chicago version of the Windows operating system, due out by year-end, will include a single information manager interface that will allow users to scan their electronic mail or voice mail messages, access faxed documents and connect to the Internet and other on-line systems.
Microsoft shares surged $5.13 to $88.13 on Tuesday in response to earnings, released Monday, that exceeded analysts' expectations.