IBM should spend another $1B to sell its Symphony OpenOffice-Linux desktop to the masses

IBM is enlisting the help of the top three Linux distributors to help its desktop Office and messaging software gain ground. It's a small step forward but Big Blue must reach out to the masses to win this game.
Written by Paula Rooney, Contributor

IBM is enlisting the help of the top three Linux distributors to help its desktop Office and messaging software gain ground. It's a small step forward but Big Blue must reach out to the masses to win this game.

At LinuxWorld, IBM announced that Canonical/Ubuntu, Novell and Red Hat have agreed to work with their PC partners to deliver a Linux desktop based on Lotus Notes and recently released Lotus Symphony by 2009.  The company did something similar at its LotuSphere 2008 in January, by partnering with distros and adding an e-mail client to the mix. What a concept.

The announcement at LinuxWorld coincides with IBM’s 10-year anniversary of investing in Linux.  Still, IBM’s Lotus Symphony – based on OpenOffice -- was announced only a year ago and only recently shipped in June.

It's not a bad idea, but my take is that IBM must dig deep and invest heavily in marketing and advertising to drive more general consumer acceptance about its open source Office. Techies know that OpenOffice exists and may need to be told that IBM is now shipping its own flavor. But more significantly, Big Blue has to tell ordinary consumers.

IBM, like Sun, is trying to drive more sales of the open source Office suite against the more ubiquitous Microsoft Office and gain steam as Google Apps takes hold.  Although acceptance of the open source desktop has lagged adoption on the server, IBM hopes slower adoption of Microsoft’s latest operating system and the economic downturn elevate its prospects. It may -- but only if the company targets everyday users via mainstream TV, radio and Web sites.

"The slow adoption of Vista among businesses and budget-conscious CIOs, coupled with the proven success of a new type of Microsoft-free PC in every region provides an extraordinary window of opportunity for Linux,” said Kevin Cavanaugh, vice president for IBM Lotus Software, in a press release issues Tuesday night. “ We’ll work to unlock the desktop to save our customers money and give freedom of choice by offering this industry leading solution.”

 The bundle being proferred will include Symphony, Notes and Lotus SameTime IM with the Linux distribution of each vendor, along with applications and services from local IT dealers that sell it.

IBM claims that Austrian IT firm VDEL debuted the first offering named OpenReferent in Eastern Europe earlier this year with IBM's OCCS on Red Hat Enterprise Linux and customers using it have enjoyed savings of between 30 and 35 percent compared to Microsoft Office.

As Dana points out, tapping the channel is a good move. IBM has driven and enjoyed its share of success in the Linux market and in open source in general.  With Linux, it invigorated its free fall mainframe business and most forcefully demonstrated Linux's ability to run across many platforms and architectures with little rework. Its leadership with Eclipse and participation in many open source projects is well known.

IBM has advocated Linux on the desktop for some time but its embrace of OpenOffice (until June) has been less enthusiastic. Its chief rival, Sun, after all, is driving the project.  But IBM's delivery of its Lotus OpenOffice derivative -- just two months ago -- has given advocates of open source Office more hope. 

IBM is wise to try to push its desktop through Linux distributors and through the channel but it must invest heavily in marketing and advertising to make consumers -- home users and business consumers alike -- more open to a Microsoft Office alternative. End user resistance to change and high costs of retraining users are commonly cited as chief reasons why the open source desktop has faltered. IBM claimed in the late 90s that it would invest more than $1 billion to make Linux succeed against Windows -- and it has largely succeeded on the server. Now it must dig deeper to make it happen on the desktop.  

I have covered the Linux desktop for 10 years myself and have found it frustrating that open source vendors have largely failed to target mainstream consumers.  Unlike most open source projects and backers of OpenOffice, IBM has the marketing dollars to shift public perception. Selling Linux on the server to IT pros required some investment but selling the Linux-OpenOffice desktop to consumers is going to require an even bigger investment than Big Blue shelled out to win the server market in its first 10 years. Will IBM shell out another $1 billion to win in the desktop market?

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