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IBM expands Microsoft collaboration war to office market

IBM's recent Lotus moves are part of the company's larger war with Microsoft in the market for collaboration software.

IBM's move to develop its own suite of productivity applications to compete with Microsoft's Office software is part of a larger war the two companies are waging in the market for employee collaboration applications.

Many companies use Lotus Notes/Domino for e-mail and messaging alongside Microsoft Office for productivity, and each company is trying to leverage the strength and popularity of its core software package to encourage customers to buy other collaboration offerings for a complete vendor-centric stack.

A one-vendor scenario for collaboration could play out in the longer term, and Microsoft already has a leg up on IBM because customers that don't use Lotus/Domino pair Microsoft's Outlook/Exchange Server for messaging with Office. However, at least in the short term, customers using both Lotus and Office have application dependencies that would make it difficult to implement an all-IBM or all-Microsoft environment for collaboration, according to customers attending IBM's Collaboration Summit in New York this week.

With Lotus Notes 8 and related applications like Sametime, Quickr and a new Lotus product called Connections, IBM has linked the facets of its collaboration software together so individuals working in team environments can share information more seamlessly without having to toggle back and forth between different software interfaces. The new suite also gives Lotus more of a unified desktop feel, something users would get when they use traditional Microsoft applications.

In Notes 8, IBM also included office productivity applications based on OpenOffice.org, strategically calling the products "editors" rather than productivity apps to imply that they don't have to be part of an entire separate suite, said Erica Driver, analyst with Forrester Research.

"IBM is saying, 'it's not a big deal,'" and that you don't need an entirely separate suite for word processing, spreadsheets and the like, she said. "They want people to think of these applications as buttons in Lotus Notes. It's a smart move because it commoditizes the basic capabilities [of Office] and forces Microsoft to add value."

To continue its offensive against Office, IBM also this week spun out the productivity apps in Lotus 8 as Symphony, a free, stand-alone suite that is available for download on the Web.

Microsoft is approaching collaboration from a slightly different direction. With Office a de facto standard on the corporate desktop, and Exchange/Outlook a competitive alternative to Notes/Domino with many customers, the company is using its rebranded and revamped portal, Office SharePoint Server, as a way for customers to surface information from back-end applications through common Office apps. The idea is that people are already familiar with Office applications, so it will be easy for the population of employees Microsoft calls "information workers" to use those common interfaces to share project tasks, information and to communicate with one another.

"Microsoft's viewpoint is, 'Everyone loves Office,'" Driver said. "All the other stuff works into those applications."

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But getting a company to drop Office or Notes when they've been using one or the other for years is no easy task, an IT professional said. For one thing, if a company has had one of those applications in the environment for some time, there are a host of other applications that likely depend on their existence on the network, said Steven Franzen, senior systems engineer for Union Pacific Railroad. He said his agency's IT environment is both a Notes/Domino and Office shop, and there are legacy applications that just can't be removed easily.

However, phasing in something like IBM's Symphony to replace Office could work on a case-by-case basis after doing some analysis of employee roles, he said. For some employees who don't create a lot of documents and may only need to view and share them, Symphony could be a good alternative to replace some costly Microsoft licenses. "We will look at Symphony to provide cost savings," Franzen said. "If you look at someone who just consumes data versus someone who creates it, it would be nice to have a low-cost option."

Irwin Horowitz, systems specialist for chemical company BASF Group, agreed that a product like Symphony could be a replacement for Office for some users, but it will be a hard sell as a rip-and-replace scenario for companies that have a long history of using Office.

But even if that's the case, at least Symphony does give IT decision-makers "leverage" with Microsoft to try to pay less for Office licenses. "I can say, 'I don't like the deal you're giving me, Microsoft, and I'm looking at someone else's technology," Horowitz said.

Another subtext to the collaboration war between Microsoft and IBM is the idea of open standards. Symphony and the document applications in Lotus Notes are based on Open Document Format (ODF), a standard file format approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Microsoft Office is based on Open XML (OOXML), which Microsoft created and submitted to the ISO but which did not pass a vote there earlier this month and has to undergo further process on its way to approval.

There has been widespread industry debate over ODF and OOXML and whether the industry needs more than one XML-based format for documents. Microsoft's insistence on pushing its own file format has given competitors a chance to offer real alternatives to Office for the first time. In addition to competing strategically from a market standpoint, IBM also is pitting itself against Microsoft as a company that cares about software standards while its rival does not.

Both Franzen and Horowitz agree that standards do give them more flexibility in their IT environments. And Lotus Notes can be run on a Linux desktop, while Office and Microsoft's Office applications and collaboration stack have Windows dependencies, Horowitz said.

However, while open standards might be a draw for developers, company CIOs still favor de facto desktop industry standards such as Office and Windows, which makes it difficult to implement new desktop technologies across the board, he added. "I love the idea of standards, but I don't get the final say," Horowitz said.