Free and freer: Lotus Symphony could be your unsung hero

Everyone knows that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or is it?
Written by Sheri McLeish, Contributor

Everyone knows that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Or is it? With its free productivity tools suite Symphony, IBM/Lotus is looking to shake things up a bit, putting even greater pressure on Microsoft's Office margin and besting Google and Zoho as the lowest-cost alternative.   So far, enterprise customers have been reluctant to move away from Office due to concerns about supporting a new or multiple environments, document formats, user acceptance, and proof of savings after change management costs are figured in. But with the lure of free or much lower-cost alternatives available, CIOs are reexamining these investments in a suddenly interesting market given the economic climate. With its Open Office-based Symphony, Lotus provides a robust tool set that is enterprise-ready. To make the point, 40,000 of IBM's information workers recently made the jump off Office onto Symphony 1.2, and all of the conference materials for last week's Lotusphere09 event were produced using the tools. It all worked and looked great. But these workers were already on Notes, and what works for IBM doesn't necessarily work for the masses.   Lotus' biggest challenge now may be its image and marketing. Other than the loyal Lotus aficionados who turned out en force at the brand's premier customer event in Orlando -- the roughly 4,000 in attendance was up 2% from last year -- most IT folks are not up to speed with Lotus' latest offerings to ease internal and external collaboration like lotuslive.com, which was announced last week. Symphony fits into IBM ECM and the Lotus collaboration strategy nicely by providing the classic tools for creating, sharing, and storing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations along with some nifty innovations. But if you're not an IBM Notes shop -- and according to Forrester data, the overwhelming majority of enterprises are on Exchange -- you might not know about it.   The other tack, which has found traction for Google, is to work on the consumer market. IBM has never courted the consumer market well, or necessarily even tried. But when you have a product as good as Symphony is today, gaining mindshare in the consumer market creates awareness from the bottom up. Google Docs is a popular choice for many students not just because it's free, but because it meets their needs and has a great affinity with Google Mail and Calendar. When clients ask us about alternatives to Office, Google is the first one they mention. But in many cases, Google's limited functionality isn't viable enterprise wide. Until IBM puts some money into marketing Symphony -- to consumers as well as enterprises, it will struggle to break into non-Lotus shops. And that's too bad, because for those really looking to reduce Microsoft licensing costs without trading off functionality, Symphony sounds pretty good.

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