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Sep 19 2007   3:02PM GMT

IBM takes (yet another) swing at Office

badarrow Barbara Darrow Profile: badarrow

Time warp anyone?

When news outlets reported this week that IBM/Lotus unveiled Symphony an Office-y application set, long time software resellers must have thought they’d entered the way-back machine.

Lotus fielded its original Symphony more than twenty years ago. On board was a young tech whiz kid named Ray Ozzie. You may have heard of him. Symphony was to be the follow on to Lotus’ blockbuster 1-2-3. No such luck.

The current Symphony is yet another attempt by IBM to loosen Microsoft’s grip on the desktop productivity market. This time it’s a freebie ODF-compliant suite. Buzzword check: Open source? Check. Cross-platform? Check. Anti-Microsoft? Check. It’s a go!

But before we get our knickers in a twist, let’s recap how many times IBM, and before that Lotus, tried to do this.

There was the portal play, when IBM started delivering a simple text editor, basic spreadsheet—you see where I’m going here—with its WebSphere portal. The sales pitch there was that for many companies these applets had plenty of functionality for most users and would obviate the need for expensive Microsoft Office upgrades

The pitch would have gone something like this:

IBM to customer: “For 80 percent of 80 percent of your users’ needs these applets are enough. The rest can stay on their old MS Office and you can use all that upgrade money to buy IBM portals!! We’ll save you money because everyone needs a portal anyway.”

Customer to IBM: “No thanks.”.

Earlier, Lotus Development (pre-IBM) tried to counter Office with SmartSuite, surrounding 1-2-3 with Ami Pro, Freelance—a much better app than PowerPoint, btw—and the nifty Approach database. It went over like a lead balloon, except in some big IBM shops. And maybe IBM itself. For awhile.

Then there was eSuite, a set of Java-based component applications. Result: DOA.

IBM must hope this time around that its OpenOffice clone will dislodge some Microsoft Office holders at a time where Microsoft is under fire big time from European antitrust officials. Face it, for all of Microsoft Office’s dominance, many of its users frankly don’t like it very much. Many resent Microsoft pressure to upgrade for new features they will never use and do not want. One solution provider specializing in small business accounts say many are irate that they are no longer able to buy Office 2003 for users in workgroups wehre it has become the standard. They resent pressure to upgrade all their users–regardless of need–to Office 2007.

So maybe, maybe, this time IBM will get some traction although it is unclear to me why this offering would one up OpenOffice or StarOffice which are, face it, widely available already.

So, will — what is it–the third, fourth, fifth time a charm for IBM? We’ll see.

Barbara Darrow, a Boston-area journalist, can be reached at

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