IBM's announcement of Lotus Symphony yesterday gave me a wicked '80s flashback. In my mind's eye I saw the original Lotus Symphony office suite, flickering on an amber monochrome monitor, boring me to tears as a New Order dance track thumped in the background.
The new Symphony comes with a different soundtrack: the drumbeat of challengers marching on Microsoft Office. The Symphony suite unveiled by IBM yesterday as a free download is actually a gussied-up version of OpenOffice, the open source productivity suite –- kinda like Sun's StarOffice, now offered for free as part of Google Pack. Could it be a coincidence that on the same day Google CEO Eric Schmidt talked up the forthcoming presentation component of Google Docs?
So let's see: We have OpenOffice permutations advancing on the desktop plus Google Apps, Zoho, Zimbra, and several other contenders making a flank attack through the browser. ODF, OpenOffice's native document format, continues to gather steam, while earlier this month the ISO voted against fast-tracking approval of Microsoft's competing OOXML document format. Not to mention that the Office clones look and feel more like earlier versions of Office than Microsoft's 2007 version and its revamped UI.
Yet in Redmond the guns remain eerily silent, to the point where I'm beginning to wonder if Microsoft isn't up to something. Ask the company, and all you get is the usual defensive posturing. Yesterday I spoke with Jacob Jaffe, Director, Microsoft Office, who –- surprise! –- claimed the recent surge of competitive activity doesn't bother Microsoft at all. Not one bit! Customer satisfaction is booming. The company sold more than 71 million licenses in the last fiscal year, for heaven's sake.
You want SaaS (software-as-a-service), a la Google apps? Microsoft goes one better: software plus services. As an example, Jaffe noted you can call up help within an Office application and get helpful content from Microsoft via Office Online. Whoa! Nobody could have imagined that back in the Devo era.
In only one case did I get beyond the stonewalling: when I broached the subject of desktop virtualization. Lately it has occurred to me that Microsoft's lack of a serious SaaS play could be indicative of some secret desktop virtualization plan –- where Microsoft streams Office and Windows in their entirely to a desktop or terminal near you, no funky AJAX compromises required. Would Jaffe rule that out?
"I’ve got nothing specific to announce at this particular point in time," replied Jaffe. "But I do think it's important to reinforce that when we think about services, we think about it in the broadest context, not that services equals Web browser only.”
Sounds like Redmond-speak for "watch this space" to me. I know that Microsoft takes the "services wave" seriously, but as far as SaaS is concerned, the company has barely showed up to the party. But with its SoftGrid acquisition, Microsoft is leading the desktop virtualization field.
Next week Randy Kennedy (who also has something to say about Symphony today) will be exploring this angle in his in-depth comparative review of SoftGrid, Symantec SVS Pro, and Thinstall Application Virtualization Suite.
I like the '00s. They're a lot more exciting than the '80s.