IBM this week quietly updated its Lotus Symphony desktop applications with a feature that hints at its broader strategy to use the Web and standards to up-end Microsoft's massive Office business.
Introduced last September, Lotus Symphony is a free suite of applications based on OpenOffice, an open-source alternative to Office. The fourth beta of Symphony, due for release next week, will add a module that will let IBM and other software companies add extensions to these applications.
Under a strategy called "Beyond Office," IBM is developing several technologies to make Symphony an extensible development platform for business applications and Web-based document editors.
Rather than compete head-to-head with Microsoft Office, IBM's strategy is to make documents act like "containers" for information within workflow and collaboration applications, according to IBM executives.
The plan also calls for IBM to make documents based on the Open Document standard available through Web browsers using Adobe Flash or HTML. On Wednesday, IBM opened a Web site called Bluehouse where small business people can access hosted Web applications for sharing documents.
"We don't have any intention of trying to monetize the Office space," said Doug Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM collaboration technologies. "Symphony is a platform play.
"Document editors--for presentations, spreadsheets, charting--are simply components users can wire and reconfigure and attach different modules to bring in functionality," he explained. "This changes the entire landscape."
Using this approach, businesses and consumers will be able to create customized "composite" applications using the Symphony document editors as a front end to receive or submit the information. For example, lawyers can write documents that are then routed to colleagues for approval, while the same platform can be tuned for video editors.
At its Lotusphere conference this week, IBM showed Symphony plug-ins that can translate text into languages or find the closest gas station to a location written a document. The plug-in framework is based on the Eclipse Rich Client software.
ODF versus Open XML
Central to IBM's desktop strategy is its support of standards. The company has been on the forefront of pushing for the adoption of Open Document Format, or ODF, the native file formats in OpenOffice.
ODF is now an international standard and being considered or favored by the large customers, notably national governments concerned with long-term archiving of digital information.
Microsoft has had the file formats in Office 2007--called Open Office XML (OOXML)--certified as an international standard which is now developed through a multiparty process. It faces an importantnext month at the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization.
Because ODF is based on XML, vendors like IBM can build sophisticated applications such as multistep claims processing programs, which users access through familiar document editors or spreadsheet, Heintzman said.
Microsoft, too, has already built tools and other servers that allow for workflow and business intelligence-style applications which are a big enhancement to Office 2007.
IBM is also supporting XForms, a World Wide Web Consortium standard for embedding forms within documents. Standards such ODF serve to commoditize desktop applications, allowing people to innovate around those basic editors, Heintzman argued.
"We strongly believe that an enormous amount of innovative potential has been held back by the network effects around the file formats and the proprietary control that Microsoft has had around those formats," he said.
IBM favors ODF as a file format because it is "truly open" and technically elegant, Heintzman said.
But IBM will support Open XML, which is the current document format in Office 2007, in its Lotus collaboration and portal products. IBM already supports older versions of Office.
Symphony coming to the Web
As part of Beyond Office, IBM is working on providing Web access to Symphony applications.
It already has working demonstrations that show how ODF-based content can be shown in a browser. Users will also be able to edit documents through a browser without having to install the Symphony editors.
Many of those Web-based application features will be available through Bluehouse, which is aimed at small- and medium-size businesses. They cover the ability to create and save documents, maintain contacts, and chat.
"We're going to take this well beyond the dominant paradigm," Heintzman said.
Beyond Office is a project name that serves as a framework for the product development of Symphony along with several different research initiatives within IBM.
"We hope to mature and refine this this year and hopefully at next year's Lotusphere we'll start to lay out this next generation vision in a very concrete way," he said.