IBM Symphony falls on deaf ears without open source e-mail, calendar

IBM's debut of its homegrown open source version of OpenOffice without e-mail or collaboration features is not surprising but nevertheless disappointing.On the one hand, Big Blue's recent endorsement and support and services plan for OpenOffice -- an acknowledgement of the obsolescence of SmartSuite and Workplace -- offers new hope for the struggling open source desktop.

IBM's debut of its homegrown open source version of OpenOffice without e-mail or collaboration features is not surprising but nevertheless disappointing.

On the one hand, Big Blue's recent endorsement and support and services plan for OpenOffice -- an acknowledgement of the obsolescence of SmartSuite and Workplace -- offers new hope for the struggling open source desktop.

On the other hand, the company's release of free downloadable word processing, spreadsheet and presentation modules in beta form today with no complementary open source collaboration component stomps out any of that excitement.

IBM Lotus Symphony is more like a resurrected Workplace-like add-on for IBM's proprietary Lotus Notes 8 and Domino upgrades (also announced today) than a genuine effort to pit OpenOffice against Microsoft Office.

Let's face it: Lotus Notes is the crown jewel in IBM's software productivity portfolio. Neither Lotus SmartSuite nor IBM's Workplace components ever made a dent in Microsoft's Office monopoly, and Symphony will likely follow the same path without a collaboration component.

One IBM strategist told me today that there are no plans to open source the company's "premier" Notes product and no plans to release a Symphony Notes or calendaring component in the forseeable future. Too bad.

IBM is squandering a rare opportunity to steal market share from Microsoft Office. No one blames the company for protecting a valuable revenue stream. But handing over to the open source community some snippets of hot Notes code such as a calendaring applet does not spell the death knell for Notes.

Making open source software successful on the desktop is pivotal for its advance in corporate use, and that will require drastic measures. What could make IBM's OpenOffice compelling is the inclusion of a standalone, open source Notes collaboration or calendaring component, a la Outlook, and the development of a SharePoint knock-off, said one open source consultant.

Chris Maresca, a founder and principal at open source consulting firm Olliance Group, points out that it's going to be a monumental task for OpenOffice -- or Symphony -- to grab any share from Microsoft Office because corporate re-training costs vastly exceed any savings in software costs. And the latter is mute anyway since Microsoft is sharply discounting the cost of Office in its volume licensing contracts.

Maresca suggested, for example, that IBM could develop an open source equivalent of SharePoint and participate with the new as-yet-unnamed Thunderbird subsidiary to create a viable next generation OpenOffice collaboration solution.

One leader in OpenOffice.org has his own thoughts about how IBM could help the community but nevertheless praised IBM's endorsement of OpenDocument format.

"We'd prefer them to ship OpenOffice.org to their customers," said John McCreesh, marketing project lead at OpenOffice,org. "However, it's good to have another first grade software product using ODF. Every additional product helps nail the lie that OASIS's ODF is somehow tied to OpenOffice.org the same way that Microsoft's OOXML is tied to Microsoft Office."

IBM said it is giving back to the community accessibility improvements, Eclipse framework and programming tools, as well as administration tools, and is devoting more developers to OpenOffice than ever before.

In a recent interview, one IBM exec hinted that the company will participate in developing collaboration features for the next generation Web 2.0 Openoffice. And it's possible that Steve Mills and the OpenOffice.org team are quietly planning an Outlook killer that they prefer not to talk about today.

But delivering Symphony in its current form, without a collaboration component, and without Office 2007 support, is a big yawn.

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