IBM expands Microsoft collaboration war to office market

IBM's recent Lotus moves are part of the company's larger war with Microsoft in the market for collaboration software.

But getting a company to drop Office or Notes when they've been using one or the other for years is no easy task, an IT professional said. For one thing, if a company has had one of those applications in the environment for some time, there are a host of other applications that likely depend on their existence on the network, said Steven Franzen, senior systems engineer for Union Pacific Railroad. He said his agency's IT environment is both a Notes/Domino and Office shop, and there are legacy applications that just can't be removed easily.

However, phasing in something like IBM's Symphony to replace Office could work on a case-by-case basis after doing some analysis of employee roles, he said. For some employees who don't create a lot of documents and may only need to view and share them, Symphony could be a good alternative to replace some costly Microsoft licenses. "We will look at Symphony to provide cost savings," Franzen said. "If you look at someone who just consumes data versus someone who creates it, it would be nice to have a low-cost option."

Irwin Horowitz, systems specialist for chemical company BASF Group, agreed that a product like Symphony could be a replacement for Office for some users, but it will be a hard sell as a rip-and-replace scenario for companies that have a long history of using Office.

But even if that's the case, at least Symphony does give IT decision-makers "leverage" with Microsoft to try to pay less for Office licenses. "I can say, 'I don't like the deal you're giving me, Microsoft, and I'm looking at someone else's technology," Horowitz said.

Another subtext to the collaboration war between Microsoft and IBM is the idea of open standards. Symphony and the document applications in Lotus Notes are based on Open Document Format (ODF), a standard file format approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Microsoft Office is based on Open XML (OOXML), which Microsoft created and submitted to the ISO but which did not pass a vote there earlier this month and has to undergo further process on its way to approval.

There has been widespread industry debate over ODF and OOXML and whether the industry needs more than one XML-based format for documents. Microsoft's insistence on pushing its own file format has given competitors a chance to offer real alternatives to Office for the first time. In addition to competing strategically from a market standpoint, IBM also is pitting itself against Microsoft as a company that cares about software standards while its rival does not.

Both Franzen and Horowitz agree that standards do give them more flexibility in their IT environments. And Lotus Notes can be run on a Linux desktop, while Office and Microsoft's Office applications and collaboration stack have Windows dependencies, Horowitz said.

However, while open standards might be a draw for developers, company CIOs still favor de facto desktop industry standards such as Office and Windows, which makes it difficult to implement new desktop technologies across the board, he added. "I love the idea of standards, but I don't get the final say," Horowitz said.

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Elizabeth Montalbano

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