IBM Lotus Symphony Upsets Well-Known Rivals

"We looked at the landscape dominated by one monopolistic vendor and saw an opportunity for a free alternative,” said an IBM executive. The company’s free word processing app recently won a Datamation Product of the Year Award.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the company that coined the term “word processor” created this year’s Datamation Product of the Year winner in the office productivity suite category. But the brand new IBM Lotus Symphony suite was the undisputed underdog in a race against more mature and well-known rivals, including Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.

So what set Symphony apart from the competition? Customers, reviewers, and IBM executives each offer distinct opinions on what makes Symphony worth using.

The User Base

To date, 400,000 people have downloaded the English version of Symphony directly from the IBM Web site, with 100,000 doing so in the first week the beta was available. But according to IBM, that number only tells part of the story. Thousands more have downloaded Symphony in one of the 23 other languages available, are using Symphony within Lotus Notes or another product, have downloaded the software from a non-IBM Web site, or are one of the many IBM employees using Symphony on the job. Still, the total user base falls far short of the estimated 500 million people who use Microsoft Office.

In general, Symphony users seem attracted to the product because it offers a free alternative to the $400+ Microsoft Office Suite, because it carries the well-respected IBM name, and because it complies with open document standards.

“Providing productivity options to our employees is good on multiple levels,” says Darren Creely of Prudential Insurance. “The tools comprising Symphony that we plan to use within Lotus Notes 8 represent an open alternative for the things we all use the most—word processing, spreadsheets, presentations—that will interoperate with other software, making it very versatile and useful.”

The Early Reviews

While customers talk about price and open standards, reviewers have focused their attention on Symphony’s look and features. The suite receives almost universal praise for its clean, extremely intuitive interface. Reviewers also like the fact that all three apps in the suite open in a single tabbed window, making it easy to switch back and forth. And unlike Microsoft Word, Symphony Documents doesn’t surprise you by re-formatting your text unexpectedly.

On the downside, the current beta 4 release still has a number of bugs, and like OpenOffice, it can be slow. In addition, while it does allow you to save your work in older Microsoft Office formats, it doesn’t support Office 2007 formats.

IBM’s Plans

For its part, IBM sees Symphony as much more than a tool for creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. According to Doug Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM collaboration products and Lotus, “Symphony is not just an editing suite; it’s one piece of a much larger strategy.”

That strategy involves directly challenging Microsoft in the office productivity market. “We looked at the landscape dominated by one monopolistic vendor and saw an opportunity for a free alternative. This is, frankly, an effort to commoditize a space overdue for commoditization.” explains Heintzman.

IBM hopes to use Symphony to help usher in a “Beyond Office” era that incorporates Web 2.0 phenomena, such as blogging, wikis, collaborative co-editing, and social networking. One way Symphony does that is with its ever-growing library of plug-ins. For example, Symphony plug-ins can provide dynamic inline translations of text, display flight status for flight numbers found in documents, lookup Wikipedia articles for key words, and much more.

Heintzman believes that these types of features are the tip of the iceberg in changing the way people view and use office productivity software. “The time has come for a next-generation paradigm. The next big paradigm that follows the Office paradigm will unleash users’ creativity in a new way.”

The beta 4 version of Lotus Symphony is currently available for download for Windows or Linux systems. IBM expects to make a free GA [Generally Available] version available sometime in the second quarter of 2008.

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