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Tracking The Office Alternatives - From Lotus Symphony To Google Office

Microsoft Office ain't cheap, but most companies have viewed it as necessary expense for just about every office worker. Lower cost and even free alternatives haven't made much of a dent in Office's dominance. But IBM's new Lotus Symphony may change all that -- for some companies.
Microsoft Office ain't cheap, but most companies have viewed it as necessary expense for just about every office worker. Lower cost and even free alternatives haven't made much of a dent in Office's dominance. But IBM's new Lotus Symphony may change all that -- for some companies.Way back in the last millennium, I was a senior editor at Lotus Magazine, which wrote about the 1-2-3 spreadsheet and other Lotus products, including the original Symphony. The Microsoft Office suite effectively killed off those products, and has ruled the market for desktop productivity software efer since.

But IBM, which bought Lotus years ago, is re-introducing Symphony as a free open-source download based on the Eclipse open-source framework. According to CNET News.com, it uses the OpenDocument Format (ODF) derived from OpenOffice, but can also work with Microsoft Office formats and export to Adobe PDFs.

The beta version includes workd processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software and runs on Windows and Linux -- a Mac version is reportedly in the works.

Free is good, but will it be enough to pry small and midsize companies away from Microsoft Office? For power users and rich enterprises, probably not. But for smaller companies -- and users -- who just need to create the odd document or spreadsheet, the savings could be significant.

Still, this isn't the first attempt to usurp Microsoft Office. Web-based Google Docs is also free, and doesn't even require a download. The company added Google Presentations just this week. But most reviewers consider Google Docs too limited to be a real Office replacement -- although they do laud its advanced collaboration features. Other online competitors include Zoho, which my friend Harry McCracken rates far ahead of Google Docs.

But IBM's entry is significant in many ways. Big Blue's very bigness connotes stability, which is critical for companies relying on productivity software. And IBM is offering a number of support options for Symphony, which will also help ease concerns for potential business users.

Of course, Microsoft isn't sitting still. The company plans to release the next version -- code-named Office 14-- in 2009, with test versions coming out next year.

Maybe they ought to hurry? Few companies will ditch their current versions of Microsoft Office for these new alternatives. But there are now plenty of reasons to think twice before upgrading, or before buying Office for new hires.

Editor's Choice
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author