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 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. 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 and Google.

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. That effort was led by Ray Ozzie, who at the time was the development chief at Lotus. Ironically, Ozzie now is chief software architect at Microsoft, 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.

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.

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.

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