IBM scores 'Symphony' as free Office rival.

IBM scores 'Symphony' as free Office rival.

Sweet music for those seeking Office alternatives

IBM has spun out productivity software included in the latest version of Lotus Notes as a free stand-alone suite to compete with Microsoft's Office productivity suite.

The name for the suite, Symphony, is the same name IBM used for its first integrated productivity suite, which it offered in the 1980s but which never took off with customers. IBM Software Group general manager of Lotus Software, Mike Rhodin, said the company brought back the name to "herald a new age" of productivity software.

Symphony includes Lotus Symphony Documents, Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets and Lotus Symphony Presentations. The applications are available online at a new website that will also serve as the home page for a community IBM hopes will grow around the suite.

Rhodin said IBM is offering Symphony in beta because it wants users to suggest improvements for the software, hoping the suite will evolve more quickly than it could if the company were to work on it independently.

Like the productivity software built into Notes 8, Symphony is based on the open-source Eclipse platform and uses Open Document Format for XML (ODF) as its native file format. ODF is a document standard recognised by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), but a rival to Microsoft's Open XML (OOXML), which is the native format in Office.

Microsoft's quest to have OOXML become a standard alongside ODF was dealt a blow when the ISO voted against fast-tracking approval of the format in September.

IBM has been an ardent supporter of ODF for some time, but with Symphony the company is bringing this support into the Web 2.0 age.

Symphony is an alternative not only to Office but to Google Docs & Spreadsheets, the search giant's own version of online document-editing and creation software. IBM also is offering fee-based phone support for services if customers want that option.

IBM also unveiled Lotus Notes as a hosted service. Rhodin said the service is meant for the small-to-medium-size business market, for organisations up to about 10,000 users. According to IBM, the operational cost of hosted Lotus is about US$5 to US$10 a user per month.

In addition to Lotus Notes, customers can include hosted versions of Lotus Sametime and Lotus Quickr, Rhodin said.

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