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IBM takes on Microsoft Office again with Lotus Symphony

Desktop suite Lotus Symphony runs on Windows and Linux and supports OpenDocument, PDF and Microsoft Office document formats.

Note: the description of the original Lotus Symphony product has been corrected.

An emboldened IBM challenged Microsoft's desktop application dominance with the introduction on Tuesday of IBM Lotus Symphony, a suite of free desktop applications.

Lotus Symphony is made up of three applications--word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation programs--which IBM already ships as part of Lotus 8.

The offering is in beta and is available as a free download with "community support" from IBM's Web site. IBM is considering other support options, according to a company executive.

Lotus Symphony Documents is IBM's editing software, designed for simplicity and standards support. IBM

The name Lotus Symphony is recycled; it was the name of a desktop application suite that Lotus originally offered in the 1980s. In this renewed desktop software push, IBM is offering an "open" alternative to Microsoft's proprietary Office product line.

The software is based on the Eclipse open-source framework and natively supports the OpenDocument Format, or ODF, a standard document format derived from the OpenOffice open-source desktop suite.

The applications can also work with Microsoft Office documents and output Adobe PDF documents. People can make templates from existing Office documents, though Office documents with macros and other advanced features will not convert exactly, according to an IBM FAQ.

Significantly, Lotus Symphony will run on both Windows desktop computers and Linux machines. Support for Apple's Mac OS computers is planned.

"IBM is committed to opening office desktop productivity applications, just as we helped open enterprise computing with Linux," Steve Mills, senior vice president of IBM Software Group, said in a statement.

Mills and Mike Rhodin, Lotus' general manager, are hosting a press conference in New York on Tuesday to introduce Lotus Symphony.

IBM last week said it is joining the open-source project and will be contributing human resources and code to bolster the project's initiatives, though it did not commit to offering support to business customers who use OpenOffice.

The Lotus Symphony product, to be integrated with other business applications, is designed for simplicity. It is aimed at both end users and business customers.

"It's not about the document on the desktop anymore. It's all about making information universally accessible and putting it to work on any platform and on the Web in highly flexible ways," Mills said in a statement.

IBM has been assembling a strategy for several years to pry away the control that Microsoft has over corporate desktop software.

It launched a desktop software strategy called Workplace, setting development off the Lotus Notes Productivity Tools, which have now cumulatively become Lotus Symphony.

IBM has also invested heavily in Eclipse "rich client" software because it is extensible with plug-ins and can run on different destkop operating systems.

Lotus Symphony is a departure for IBM in that it is offered directly to consumers, as well as business, rather than part of its Lotus collaboration and e-mail software.

On a technical level, Lotus Symphony is "fat client" software. Until now, IBM has favored desktop productivity applications that are managed by a server.