IBM's free Symphony targets Microsoft Office

Symphony Documents, Spreadsheet, and Presentations are being offered for free, and IBM hopes to build a community around the Microsoft 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. Mike Rhodin, general manager of Lotus Software for the IBM Software Group, said the company brought back the name to "herald in 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 Web site 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 form because it wants the community to suggest improvements for the software so that the suite can 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 ODF (Open Document Format for XML) as its native file format. ODF is a document standard recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and a rival to Microsoft's OOXML (Open XML), which is the native format in Office. Microsoft's quest to have OOXML become a standard alongside ODF was dealt a significant blow when the ISO voted against fast-tracking approval of the format earlier this month.

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 telephone support for services if customers want that option.

In addition to Symphony, IBM also unveiled Lotus Notes as a hosted service on Tuesday. Rhodin said the service is meant for the SMB market and organizations up to about 10,000 users. According to IBM, the operational cost of hosted Lotus is about $5 to $10 per user per month.

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

This story was corrected on Sept. 18, 2007.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.