Microsoft responds to IBM's free competitor (Lotus Symphony) to MS-Office

In case you missed it, IBM today released a free office productivity suite based on OpenOffice.org called Lotus Symphony.

In case you missed it, IBM today released a free office productivity suite based on OpenOffice.org called Lotus Symphony. According to News.com's Martin Lamonica:

After years of watching Microsoft rake in billions of dollars from its desktop software franchise, its competitors are pouncing.

IBM on Tuesday announced the release of Lotus Symphony, a suite of free desktop applications based on the OpenOffice.org open-source product.

The computing giant, which has been challenging Microsoft's desktop dominance for years, said that Lotus Symphony is a standards-based alternative to Microsoft's proprietary Office.

Not one to let Big Blue get away with the any rhetoric, Microsoft's PR team blanketed journalists with a solicitation to get Microsoft's side of the story. I bit. Via e-mail, here's what Microsoft's director for Microsft Office Jacob Jaffe had to say:

Customers continue to tell us that our solutions deliver the ease of use, reliability and security that they need. This is validated by the strong adoption and usage seen by Microsoft Office having sold more than 71 million licenses in just the last Microsoft fiscal year. Our long history in meeting the complex needs of enterprise customers, a partner ecosystem that has grown 43% on the Office platform since last year and our current and future investments in the software + services arena will deliver even more flexibility to customers.

'Nuf said from the Redmond camp. Now the truth. First, a lot of those copies of MS-Office were not first time purchases, but rather upgrades. Switching is often more painful than the upgrade cost. It's a business model. Some of those licenses, I'm guessing, go with the cut-rate copies of Office being sold at significant discounts to the citizens and businesses in developing nations. Some are no doubt brand new copies of Office (many of which come with new system purchases). But the bottom line is that for years, the competition to Microsoft Office has been little more than a pelting here and there.

Now, the competition is not only getting organized around collaborative initiatives like OpenOffice.org and the Open Document Format, that same competition offers a multitude of approaches (Web-based, locally executed, etc) at a value point that is impossible to ignore for just about any cost conscious organization, is extremely well-funded, and is showing no signs of letting up any time soon. That same competition is capable of delivering solutions into a global market (where the real growth is) that often requires ISO compliance (the Open Document Format has it, Microsoft Office's native format OOXML doesn't) to be considered for purchase (or worse, that the cost is free like what's happening in India). This is not a post about how "Microsoft is doomed now that IBM has thrown its hat into the ring." But keeping in mind the sort of global clients that IBM gets to have a conversation with every day, this is a post about how, sometime in this decade Microsoft will have no choice but to respond in kind. The acquisition and upgrade costs for licenses to Microsoft Office will finally come down to earth and, rather than simply meeting offerings like Google Apps feature for feature, Microsoft will realize it must try to set the pace in the Web-based office space rather than follow. Especially now that Yahoo has acquired Zimbra. One reason? For the most part (yes, I know, there's a Mac version), Microsoft Office is a key to users' addiction to Windows. Microsoft can't leave to chance any possibility that new or existing customers who are dabbling in alternative technologies might be led astray from Windows (the way OpenOffice.org- or Web-based alternatives can lead them). Second, just the fact that Microsoft is responding with canned statements like this is evidence that that these alternatives are high on Microsoft's radar.

In the past, statements like these weren't available unless you asked. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used to get routinely asked about OpenOffice.org and his stock answer was always something on the order of you get what you pay for (an implication that you're not getting much for free). Well, now, that answer doesn't exactly fly any more and Microsoft is proactively responding instead of waiting to be asked. In the spectrum of responses, there isn't room for much else besides a market response and that's where Microsoft is headed whether it believes that now, or not.

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