IBM, Acrobat offer response to Google Apps and Office

IBM Symphony and Acrobat.com are two polished alternatives to the current on-premise and cloud leaders in desktop productivity

The official rollout on Tuesday of IBM’s Lotus Symphony suite of productivity applications along with the launch yesterday of the official beta version of Acrobat.com from Adobe has all the experts asking the same well-worn questions: Now that Adobe, IBM, and Google all have skin in this game, is Microsoft Office under siege yet? And which online offering comes closest to being a viable alternative?

IBM’s solution, available for about six months in beta, is free, at least for the basic applications, and offers a great deal of collaborative features. But while it is a product you download from the cloud, it is not cloud computing.

“Symphony sits on the transition between two worlds of on premise and online,” says Doug Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM collaboration.

Heintzman claims Symphony has all the attributes of an on-premise application in terms of UI attributes, responsiveness, and performance, along with large dictionaries and the ability to easily work offline or on.

The collaborative part comes from the fact that it is built on open source Eclipse technology, which will allow millions of users to add widgets and plug-ins to the basic set of applications. Heintzman says that is already happening across the Web.

While Symphony 1.0 may not appeal to the hard-core productivity application user, says Jim Murphy, director of research for document management at AMR Research, the set of open APIs that comes with Symphony will allow the casual business user who just wants to put notes in a database rather than opening another application to have the word processor pop up in their current application.

“There is a lot of emphasis [from IBM] on the APIs and its integradability,” says Murphy. 

Melissa Webster, a senior analyst with IDC, believes Symphony represents IBM’s relentless assault on one of Microsoft’s two core franchises: productivity applications.

And IBM is doing it in a way that not many other companies can duplicate: through its huge support capabilities. IBM is underwriting support by offering annual support for $25,000 covering 20,000 desktops -- relatively inexpensive for the enterprise.

“It is very inexpensive, and it removes any inhibitions that are support related,” says Webster. 

When asked if he thinks Symphony is an “Office killer,” IBM’s Heintzman puts it in a larger competitive context.

 “An enormous amount of revenue is captured in this space by Microsoft,” says Heintzman. “This means at this moment they control the space by the network effect that drives their monopoly.” Heintzman says IBM has an interest in changing the landscape of the marketplace.

Asked if he thought other Office competitors such as Adobe.com, ZoHo, and Google Apps might be considered allies in this fight rather than competitors, Heintzman agrees: “We applaud and support [Adobe] BuzzWord and what Google is doing.”

What also makes IBM’s efforts a bit different than Adobe’s and other competitors to Office is the fact that from a business perspective, IBM does not need to use Symphony as a revenue stream.

“We don’t need to make money the way other players do. We are interested in changing the market,” says Heintzman.

Adobe, on the other hand is adopting what the company’s entrepreneur in residence -- his actual title -- Rick Treitman, the creator of BuzzWord before Adobe acquired his company Virtual Ubiquity, calls the "freemium" business model. This model offers a free application or service, then charges for additional services.

“More free stuff is coming down the pike, but we will charge for adding features that are needed by work groups and corporations, adding things on an administrative level and beyond,” says Treitman.

Webster believes that Acrobat offers a different twist from both Google and Microsoft: its integration with PDF and video.

Adobe’s Treitman says that all productivity applications will eventually migrate to the Web, and he wants Adobe.com to become the best Web-based productivity suite on the market.

“We are going to make the coolest apps we can make and attract as many people as we possibly can. We will compete on quality of the user experience, quality of our ability to make our products ubiquitous and available from anyplace. Our next step is to go on- and offline but be fully synchronized.”

Where Treitman may be off base is in the assertion that the best or the coolest wins, according to Murphy.

“The best product historically doesn’t win,” says Murphy; all one needs to do is take a look at the current winners to see that. What wins, he says, is the having the best go-to-market strategy and distribution. 

While Murphy doesn’t see Acrobat.com or IBM Symphony displacing Google Apps, he does say that the cycle of software dominance is shortening.

“There is the possibility that Google can be unseated,” he says. But it won’t happen quickly or easily in the enterprise.

While Microsoft may be vulnerable, Adobe is really coming at productivity applications from a content management space, adding word processing and collaboration because it wants to remain the high-end publishing solution. But, says Murphy, it will be difficult to uproot Microsoft in the enterprise.

“A lot of applications depend on Microsoft capabilities. There are macros embedded in there that IT may not fully understand the impact on the business if they change to a new set of applications.”

Applications like those offered with Acrobat.com or with IBM Symphony or the dozens of other cloud solutions, particularly ZoHo which appears to be gaining a great deal of momentum, all will create a certain loyalty around them. But it will be hard, says Murphy, at least in the immediate future to match the current momentum around Google.

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