IBM bequeaths Symphony code to Apache

IBM's Symphony code base could provide significant enhancements to OpenOffice

Hoping to further sharpen OpenOffice's competitive viability against Microsoft Office, IBM is donating the code of its Symphony open source office suite to the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation.

Apache could fold this code into its own open source office suite OpenOffice, on which Symphony was based. In June, Oracle donated the OpenOffice suite to Apache.

"Prior to Apache's entry, there really hasn't been enough innovation in this area over the past 10 years," said Kevin Cavanaugh, who is the IBM vice president for business and technical strategy in collaboration solutions. "It's been constrained because we haven't had a true open source community with a mature governance model."

Using OpenOffice as a starting point, IBM first released Symphony in 2007 as a no-cost alternative for enterprises to Microsoft's office suite. IBM hopes its potential customers will use the free Symphony instead of Microsoft Office, and other commercial office suites, and reallocate money they previously earmarked for these paid offerings to advanced IBM services and software instead.

"Our interest is in the restructuring of IT budgets," he said. "It's not a charitable thing on IBM's part. We have lots of technologies pushing the boundaries in analytics, commerce, social software. Every time we free up an inefficient IT investment, we open up the ability for us to offer more efficient investment. "

The Apache Foundation will form a project team around Symphony, and IBM will continue to contribute to the project, as well as maintain their own version of Symphony. "We don't want to dominate the Apache effort, but we are willing to put huge contributions to our engineering resources into this effort. We don't want to do it alone," Cavanaugh said.

Apache's development model will be better suited for both OpenOffice and Symphony than IBM's own efforts, Cavanaugh claimed. "The model of having any one vendor dominate an open [project] has, in my experience, never worked," he said.

The 3 million lines of code IBM developed and maintained for Symphony could potentially offer a lot of value for OpenOffice. Some of the code provides advanced compatibility with ODF (Open Document Format), so that ODF documents can be used in Web-based office suites, as well as by Microsoft Office.

Symphony also has a unique user interface model, which could simplify the OpenOffice suite. For instance, it features a sidebar that can allow users to edit the document properties, much like Microsoft's ribbon bar in Office. "We've heard from the community that people are interested in getting their hands on that and using it in OpenOffice," Cavanaugh said.

IBM also has "a tremendous amount" of code that improves the performance of OpenOffice, which is good news given that OpenOffice has, in the past, been criticized for sluggishness. Other bits of code are for bug fixes, so that "it is bullet proof enough to be used by major corporations," Cavanaugh said. IBM also has some enhancements that will help those with visual impairments use the software.

IBM and Apache have not decided yet which organization will host the downloadable version of Symphony. One possibility is that Symphony may be made available from the site, which will eventually be maintained by Apache.

IBM itself uses Symphony as the baseline office suite for its desktop packages, and uses the software internally as well. The Symphony software suite has been downloaded over 50 million times thus far. It is available in 30 languages, for Microsoft Windows, Linux and Apple Macintosh platforms.

IBM plans to announce the donation Thursday, at the ODF Plug-fest in Germany.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is

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Joab Jackson

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