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Microsoft speaks in tongues

The software giant announces a program to help governments produce local versions of Windows and Office. Is it a response to overseas pressure from open-source products?

Microsoft on Tuesday announced plans for a program to help governments produce local language versions of key applications, giving the software giant a hedge against a growing international threat from open-source software.

The Local Language Program will provide local and regional governments with "language interface packs" that government and academic developers can use to produce localized versions of the Windows XP operating system and Office 2003 productivity package, according to a Microsoft statement.

As previously reported, Microsoft is facing a growing challenge from overseas adoption of open-source software, which can be adapted to local languages as long as there are a few developers willing to invest the time and effort to do so. OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to Microsoft's Office, is currently available in more than 30 languages, with projects for twice as many more under way. Office 2003, by comparison, is available in 34 languages.

Microsoft has responded to open-source challenges overseas on a case-by-case basis, with efforts such as programs to provide Thai and Malaysian consumers with a $40 package that combines stripped-down localized versions of Windows and Office.

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The new Local Language Program will allow the company to take a more comprehensive approach to addressing international needs. The company expects the program to double the number of languages supported by major Microsoft products, including support for Ethiopia's Amharic tongue and the Ukranian language.

"Empowering communities and individuals around the world to reach their full potential is a top priority for Microsoft," said Maggie Wilderotter, senior vice president of business strategy for Microsoft. "Through the Local Language Program, we hope to provide opportunities to people of all regions, locales and languages and enable them to realize that potential."

Government customers have turned into one of Microsoft's most troublesome markets, with bodies ranging from the German city of Munich to a coalition of Asian national governments going with plans over the past year that favor open-source competitors.