People apparently are already tuning in to IBM Corp.’s Symphony. The company reported Wednesday that its free rival to Microsoft Corp.’s Office suite was downloaded 100,000 times in the first week of release.

“To be honest, we were surprised at the speed with which people jumped on this,” said Mike Rhodin, general manager of both IBM Collaboration and Lotus Software, in an interview Wednesday. To keep up with the number of people interested in downloading Symphony, IBM tripled the number of download servers it had for the suite of productivity applications in the first few days of its release, he said.

At first, users had to sign up for an IBM ID and password and enter identity information to download the first beta of Symphony, a free suite of office productivity applications made available last Tuesday, but users complained that this process was “too onerous,” Rhodin said. IBM tweaked the process so now all people need to get Symphony is a valid e-mail address.

Because of this, it’s been hard to track whether it’s consumers or businesses that are downloading Symphony, he said. But IBM is less interested in who is using the software than in getting it into as many hands as possible, Rhodin said.

Symphony is based on OpenOffice.org and the Eclipse framework, and is meant not only to give consumers and businesses an alternative to Microsoft Office, but also to promote the use of Open Document for XML (ODF), an XML-based standard for documents approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). “The end goal here is the proliferation of the open standard,” Rhodin said.

Microsoft Office 2007, which has more than 90 percent market share, does not natively support ODF and instead uses the company’s Open XML (OOXML) format, which failed to pass a recent ISO vote for standardization.

IBM and ODF supporters such as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Google Inc. have been waging a public battle against Microsoft to promote their interest in ODF, on which all three companies have based productivity applications. The Microsoft competitors are hoping that since ODF is a standard and Office does not support it, more users will begin purchasing ODF-friendly software, thus giving competing players more of a chance against Microsoft’s dominance in the productivity-application market.

Symphony joins Sun’s for-fee version of StarOffice as the latest software suite based on OpenOffice.org code to go up against Microsoft Office. So far, neither the free nor for-fee versions of OpenOffice.org have achieved any real success in cutting into Office’s market share or revenue.

IBM only recently joined the OpenOffice.org community after holding off for many years, and Rhodin said Symphony is not meant to be a slight against the suite that is freely available from that organization. But IBM is clearly interested in being more successful than its rivals in presenting a true alternative to Office as a way to promote ODF.

“This isn’t just another OpenOffice suite,” he said. “We have made investments in OpenOffice.org to create an enterprise experience around it.”

As a part of this, IBM based Symphony on the Eclipse open-source development framework, so it would be easy for third-party ISVs (independent software vendors) to build plug-in applications for the suite much like third parties have built applications for Office. In fact, one company in Brazil, Totvs SA, is already building an ERP (enterprise resource planning) application on Symphony, he said.

And before Symphony was released stand-alone, IBM had already included it in Lotus Notes 8, the latest version of its collaboration software, another arena in which it is tweaking its strategy to battle with Microsoft. Office is playing an increasingly important role for Microsoft in this market, as the company hopes to leverage the ubiquity of Office among business users by making its applications the front-end interface for worker collaboration.

So far Symphony is getting decent reviews among users, and analysts think IBM, because of its successful software history, has a better chance than others at giving Microsoft Office some real competition.

“IBM is the 800-pound gorilla in enterprise software and Microsoft’s main rival for information worker productivity tools,” wrote IDC analyst Melissa Webster in a research report published Wednesday. “And Symphony addresses the concerns that potential OpenOffice.org users might have had in regard to using open source software: Symphony is backed by the IBM brand, and is provided as a commercially developed and supported product suite.”

IBM plans to release a second beta of Symphony in the next six to eight weeks, with a general availability release of the software to come early next year, Rhodin said. At that time, IBM will offer enterprise support for the suite for a fee, though he acknowledged that IBM doesn’t really expect to sell much of that support and is only providing it so enterprises will feel more comfortable implementing Symphony.

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