IBM takes aim at Office with free productivity apps

IBM's Symphony suite provides document, spreadsheet and presentations applications with support for Open Document format company has been championing.

A week after formally joining the effort to develop the productivity applications OpenOffice.org, IBM Tuesday released into beta its own implementation called IBM Lotus Symphony and took direct aim at Microsoft Office.

IBM is making the suite of document, spreadsheet and presentation applications available free, and hopes to attract business, academic, government and consumer users. The company has not announced a ship date for a final release of Symphony, which is based on OpenOffice.org 1.2.

But identical versions of the applications are shipping as embedded tools in Notes 8, which was released last month.IBM Lotus already has a suite of productivity tools called SmartSuite, but the company has not made any investment around the tools in the past few years and doesn’t plan to start now, according to company officials.

“Symphony editors are the strategic investment going forward,” said Ed Brill, business unit executive for worldwide sales at IBM/Lotus. “We are providing import filter capabilities so SmartSuite files can be brought into the Symphony editors and be carried forward with formats like Open Document.”

IBM has been a vocal supporter of Open Document Format and a nagging critic of Microsoft/Ecma’s competing OpenXML format, which neglected to get the stamp of standardization from the ISO two week’s ago.

IBM’s timing for its renewed push into the productivity applications market is no coincidence, and it puts IBM on the front lines to battle Microsoft Office along with Google, Sun and others offering free, open source and hosted options on collaboration tool sets that include productivity applications and options for integration with business workflows and applications.

IBM’s announcement comes a day after Yahoo bought Zimbra’s collection of open source collaboration tools for $350 million and said it would target university, business and ISP markets. Zimbra is foremost an e-mail platform, but its collaboration suite includes text-editing capabilities.

IBM’s Symphony is made up of Lotus Symphony Documents, Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets and Lotus Symphony Presentations. The same core applications found in Microsoft Office and suites from Google, Sun, which is also based on OpenOffice.org, and others, such as Zoho.

Symphony applications run on both Windows and Linux and support multiple file formats, most notably the Open Document Format (ODF), but also Microsoft Office and the ability to output content in PDF format.

IBM said it would eventually offer paid support around Symphony, but for now support is being delivered via Web forum and community support tools on ibm.com.

IBM is attacking the productivity market from the desktop side while the prevailing vendor trend today is to offer applications that live online and are accessible from anywhere.

“There are different approaches in the market going on now, including the locally installed rich-client approach, but we are aware of interest in software delivered as a service, and it is something we are following,” said IBM’s Brill.

In January, IBM Lotus introduced Lotus Connections, a set of server-based social-networking services accessed over a network. At the time, Lotus said it was working on another wave of social-networking services that targets business intelligence, real-time communications and Web 2.0 applications.

Also Tuesday, IBM introduced an e-mail-delivery service around hosted Notes messaging

“In the end, I want both offline and online capability,” says Rob Koplowitz, an analyst with Forrester Research. “I want online capability because a hosted app is accessible from anywhere. And I want client-side software because I take these things offline. So ultimately the world of Google and the world of Symphony have to come together. And ultimately Microsoft has to address this as well.”

Google is addressing the offline capability with its Google Gears, and Zoho has used Gears to add offline capabilities to its productivity apps.

IBM is the pioneer in offline use with its Notes architecture and is likely to build similar capabilities into the Symphony offering, although IBM’s Brill said he had no announcements around future plans.

Lotus has used the Symphony name before, on an integrated package of productivity applications for DOS that was a follow-on to the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program. The package did not met with great success, and IBM wasted no time updating its Wikipedia entry for Lotus Symphony.

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