IBM composes new Office rival with Lotus Symphony suite

Free apps use OpenOffice.org's technology; rollout comes a week after IBM joined group

One week after saying it would belatedly join the OpenOffice.org open-source community, IBM on Tuesday released its own version of the group's free desktop applications suite in another bid to upset the dominance of Microsoft Office.

In a blast from the past, IBM will call its version of the OpenOffice.org suite Lotus Symphony, which was the name of a DOS-based office suite sold by the former Lotus Development Corp. in the 1980s and 1990s based around its then-dominant Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program. IBM, which acquired Lotus in 1995, said the new Lotus Symphony can now be downloaded from its Web site.

"My first reaction was, is this Lotus Symphony announcement from 1982?" said Rob Koplowitz, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. But he added that what Lotus Symphony has going for it is the trifecta of leading vendors that are now supporting the OpenOffice.org technology -- IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Google Inc.

Koplowitz said that "in my dream world," Lotus Symphony, Google Apps and Sun's StarOffice suite -- which OpenOffice.org is based on -- will all be interoperable with one another through the Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications. ODF, a rival to Microsoft Corp.'s Office Open XML document format, has been ratified as a standard by the Geneva-based ISO standards body.

Before Lotus was bought by IBM, it also developed a Windows-based office suite called SmartSuite. Despite IBM's backing, SmartSuite failed to make a dent against Office's market hegemony. The most recent update, Version 9.8, was released in late 2002, and IBM no longer actively markets SmartSuite, although it does maintain the software, having released a package of bug fixes as recently as a year ago.

Ironically, Ray Ozzie, who led development of Lotus Symphony as well as Lotus Notes, is now chief software architect at Microsoft Corp., a position he took over from Chairman Bill Gates in June 2006 as part of a plan for Gates to relinquish his day-to-day responsibilities at the software vendor.

OpenOffice.org hasn't posed a big threat to Office thus far. The open-source suite, which was updated with a Version 2.3 release on Monday, has been downloaded more than 96 million times, according to its developers. But its share of the overall desktop applications market remains small, even if both the open-source version and StarOffice are counted.

As part of its overall push to use more open-source technology, IBM had already built OpenOffice code into Lotus Notes 8, the latest release of its groupware and collaboration software. But otherwise, the company's previously wasn't involved in the OpenOffice.org community, which is still dominated by Sun employees despite having been spun off by Sun nearly seven years ago.

Sun's continuing dominance, say some OpenOffice.org developers, has stifled the development of new features and discouraged more people from getting involved with the community.

"OpenOffice.org has a very central business process of controlling what comes into the source base, and by that very system misses the point of open-source development," said Ken Foskey, an Australian open-source developer who worked on the OpenOffice.org technology for three years. He added that he left the group in 2005 after becoming "increasingly frustrated" with its bureaucracy.

IBM said last week that it plans to dedicate a core team of 35 of its developers in China to the OpenOffice.org project, and augment them with other resources as needed. In an interview today, Sean Poulley, vice president of business and strategy at the company's Lotus Software division, confirmed that IBM intends to shake things up within the open-source group.

"By virtue of our joining, OpenOffice.org becomes a lot less Sun-dominated," Poulley said. "We bring our credibility and prowess in enterprise software, which has less been the forte of Sun." IBM will "work within the leadership structure that exists," he added. "But we will take our rightful leadership position in the community along with Sun and others."

John McCreesh, marketing program lead for OpenOffice.org, said members of the group "welcome IBM's contributions to further enhancing the OpenOffice.org product. But equally important is IBM's future commitment to package and distribute new works that leverage OpenOffice.org technology supporting the ISO ODF standard."

Poulley said that going forward, users should expect OpenOffice.org's Web-based collaboration and communications capabilities to be significantly enhanced. "You can assume that we will bring our experience in the Notes business" to future development of the open-source suite, he noted.

Microsoft, which by most estimates continues to hold about 90% of the global office productivity software market, issued a statement saying that it has no plans to lower its Office 2007 prices in response to the release of Lotus Symphony.

"We are confident that by staying focused on what our customers ask for and what innovations are needed in a changing business landscape, the 2007 release of Microsoft Office will continue to be the software of choice," Jacob Jaffe, Microsoft's Office director, said as part of the statement.

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