IT shops mull new IBM office apps option, Symphony

Windows shops could have an alternative to costly Microsoft Office with IBM's free Lotus Symphony, which includes document sharing, spreadsheets and presentation applications.

The list of options that challenge the dominance of the traditional Windows desktop just keeps getting bigger.

Now IT managers faced with buying user licenses for Microsoft Office can dream of making beautiful music with the freebie Symphony suite of office applications released into beta this week by IBM.

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The IBM Lotus Symphony includes document sharing, spreadsheets and presentation applications. The company is aiming the suite at business, academic and government users and consumers. The software, which can be downloaded on the IBM Lotus Symphony site, supports Windows and Linux desktops as well as several file formats, including Microsoft Office and Open Document format, IBM said.

The technology is embedded in Lotus Notes/Domino 8.0, so any enterprise using the newest version of Notes has the option of using a word processor or spreadsheet in a different way, said Kyle McNabb, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

"IBM is doing a good job showing how it is different from Microsoft, showing how it can provision these capabilities within the context of a business process so it's not just an application," he said.

It's a good time to think about the future of the Windows desktop. Apart from IBM Lotus Symphony, some other possibilities include open source contenders as well as non-traditional office applications that are delivered as services to information workers from companies such as Google Inc.

Open to moving to Symphony

Many managers of IT shops are enthusiastic about potential ways to reduce license costs. Dan Lein, systems administrator at Casie Protank, a Vineland, N.J.–based environmental company, said he is open to the option of moving users to Symphony.

"We are stuck now migrating from Office 2000 to 2007, and the cost of it is making the migration a slow one -- not to mention that we have other stuff to do," Lein said. "But I'll be looking at [Symphony] pretty closely today."

Keeping costs down is also a concern of Andrew Johnson, a senior server analyst at TriHealth, a medical facility in Cincinnati. Johnson said his one concern about using an alternative to Microsoft Office would be making sure the free suite could integrate with Microsoft's Outlook and Exchange.

One of the first areas the software might be deployed is in the medical facility's thin client environment, which runs software made by Citrix Systems Inc. "We need to get licensing on our servers just so we can get Office enabled on our machines," Johnson said.

Symphony not for everyone

The biggest challenge for an enterprise in using a tool such as Symphony is in identifying the appropriate user community because it's not for everyone, said Erica Driver, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"There are some features in Microsoft Office that are not in these tools yet. So if they tried to roll it out to people that use Office, they could reject [Symphony]," she said.

But it's doubtful that many enterprises will jump on board with alternatives to Microsoft Office right away.

The software is just a beta and IBM is not completely ready to stand by it, but the company is learning about just what a real production suite needs to look like from IBM, McNabb said.

Coincidentally this week, Microsoft released a third service pack for Office 2003 that IT managers will have to test and then roll out to user desktops. It underscores the grind that the Windows administrators face every time there is an upgrade to the Windows desktop.

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