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IBM's 450 million-strong problem with Lotus Symphony...and how to crack it

IBM is going about disrupting Microsoft in the wrong way.

IBM is now giving away its Lotus Symphony product for free. Not "free" as in open source, but rather as in "Please take since people won't pay for it," as only a few hundred thousand downloads have been registered since September 2007.

The gesture is intended to take away money from Microsoft - probably a losing cause going head-to-head on Microsoft's territory - but also to provide a platform upon which to sell IBM's collaboration software. This second strategy has a better chance of success, but would be much better off it didn't first require enterprises to adopt Lotus Symphony because, quite frankly, they won't.

A much better route would be to a) extend from Microsoft Office (though this is fraught with problems because Microsoft controls the platform) or b) shift the battle to new terrain that Microsoft doesn't own, as Google has.

If I were a betting man, I'd lay my money on email as the disruptive platform that IBM should build upon, and I don't mean it's widely used by hugely clunky Domino/Lotus Notes combo. I mean Zimbra or Mozilla's new email push.

I spend most of my day in email or in my browser. I only use Microsoft Office when I absolutely must. It's not that I don't like Office - it's fine. But this isn't how I work anymore. I work in messaging. IBM, according to the article above, sees collaboration as something you do around fixed assets like documents. This is one way to collaborate, but it's not the way that most of us think about collaboration.

Rather, for most of us, collaboration is an extension of communication.

IBM shouldn't fall into Microsoft's errors. Microsoft couldn't extend Exchange to enable real collaboration because Exchange is a crumbling dinosaur of an architecture. So it invented Sharepoint. The same is likely true of Domino/Lotus Notes. So start afresh.

IBM has been exceptionally active in various open-source projects. Why not commit an army of developers to Mozilla to improve Thunderbird? Make Mozilla's Thunderbird the "standard" platform upon which all these other IBM collaborative programs run....This is bread-and-butter strategy for IBM (witness Linux and Apache). It should do the same with Mozilla.

Yahoo!, meanwhile, has a massive opportunity with Zimbra. Email should be the center of the new enterprise software universe. Research in Motion apparently gets this. Yahoo! could become the hub for enterprise software, newly defined. Zimbra is the key to that strategy, but would probably need to open up further (as in source) in order to become a full community standard.

Anyway, IBM's strategy of giving away Symphony in order to provide a platform upon which to build is not going to work. Microsoft Office is too well-entrenched. The way to undermine Microsoft is through the web (social networking, web services, etc.) and through email.