IBM Lotus Symphony takes on Office, other desktop applications

IBM and partners hope the new ODF-based suite will help them take customers away from Microsoft and create new up-sell opportunities.

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Microsoft Office got a new competitor today: IBM Lotus Symphony, a free desktop applications suite based on the Open Document Format (ODF).

IBM Lotus Symphony was previously tied to the Lotus Notes/Domino platform but is now available as standalone desktop applications software. Company executives and Lotus partners hope to attract business customers who don't see the need to pay the license and renewal fees for Microsoft Office.

"The biggest thing it comes down to is cost," said John Head, frameworks manager for PSC Group, a Lotus partner in Schaumburg, Ill. "Office is expensive. Most users don't need all of Word and all of PowerPoint and all of Excel."

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The IBM Lotus Symphony suite comprises three desktop applications -- Documents, Spreadsheets and Presentations -- that "handle the majority of office productivity tasks that most people perform," according to IBM. The applications will compete with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, respectively.

IBM claims that a 20,000-employee company could save $8 million in desktop applications software license fees or $4 million in renewals by completely switching to Lotus Symphony. Just switching half of those employees over to Lotus Symphony could still save "several million dollars," the company said.

Although IBM Lotus Symphony is free, the vendor and its partners see opportunities to reach new customers with the suite and then sell them additional software, such as Lotus Notes for messaging and Lotus Sametime for unified communications (UC).

"We obviously are hoping to be competitive across the board with our collaboration offerings and our business intelligence and other offerings," said Jeannette Barlow, market manager for IBM Lotus Symphony.

Lotus Symphony will support Microsoft documents, and Microsoft recently announced that it will support ODF. Microsoft Office is also facing new challenges from hosted desktop applications from Google and Adobe.

"There is a shift in market dynamics," Barlow said.

The promise of interoperability between Office and IBM Lotus Symphony is critical, she said, because no businesses will switch from Office if they know they won't be able to open certain documents. Plus, some users within businesses will need to stick with Office to take advantage of advanced features, Head said.

"You're probably not going to rip Office out of a company" completely, he said.

Online Lotus Symphony support is free. IBM is also providing advanced, fee-based support through its new IBM Elite Support for Lotus Symphony 1.0 services program.

IBM Lotus Symphony launched in a public beta program in September 2007, and nearly 1 million users have downloaded the desktop applications software since then, according to IBM.

Since acquiring Lotus Development Corp. in 1995, IBM has tried to loosen Microsoft's grip on office desktops several times with limited success. Microsoft Office has thus far managed to face down low-cost and no-cost competition from Star Office and Open Office, also -- but observers now see Google Apps and users' increasing willingness to forego full-featured, pricey Office as a new opportunity.

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