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Big Blue Inches Along With Lotus Symphony

IBM's bid to rival Microsoft with its own free productivity suite continues gaining traction, with Lotus Symphony today receiving the first of several planned updates -- though the product remains far from mounting a real challenge to the market's leader.

The update to Symphony arrives just two months after its launch, although the product remains in beta testing. The suite's Beta 2 update includes improvements to Symphony's installation process and speed. Most importantly, the new release improves compatibility with Microsoft's file formats.

Support for Microsoft file formats is critical for the suite. Although Symphony is based on the OpenDocument format (ODF), Lotus is seeking to win converts from the space's dominant player, Microsoft Office, and so must promise users that it can handle Office documents (such as those in Microsoft's Office Open XML format) without a hitch.

Despite competition from Microsoft Office, as well as those in the free productivity suites space from players like Google Apps, OpenOffice.org and others, IBM said Symphony is already proving successful. Lotus general manager Mike Rhodin said that more than 250,000 copies of the software's Beta 1 version have been downloaded.

"We've been getting a very widespread response to this initiative," Rhodin told InternetNews.com. "There seems to be a very pent-up demand for competition. He added that about 80 percent of copies downloaded to date have been for Windows, signifying to the company that most users were eager to switch from offerings from Microsoft.

He added that Symphony seems to be appealing to a global audience. Only 50 percent of downloads of the first beta version were from the Americas, with another third coming from Europe and the remainder from the Asia-Pacific region.

"That’s pretty amazing considering that Beta 1 was released only in English," Rhodin said.

Aside from compatibility and speed enhancements in Beta 2, new features include a loosening of the licensing restrictions, enabling users to make the suite available on download sites of their choosing. The new version also includes improved user interface changes.

Of course, Symphony has a great deal of distance to cover before it can rival its rivals in the free office apps space, much less the incumbent, Microsoft. To push the effort along, Lotus said that it has committed to continue updating its beta version every six to eight weeks. As a result, users can expect another update before the end of the year, and at least one additional update in early 2008 before a General Availability (GA) release, which could happen as early as the first quarter.

"We're coming out on a cadence ... that's going to continue," Rhodin said.

Rhodin said Lotus aims to address multi-language support with the next beta release, adding support for 23 languages to the product. He also added that an OS X version is one of the most-requested features, though he did not offer a timeline for when a Mac-compatible edition might ship.

Despite the effort, it's likely to be some time before Symphony can truly pose a threat to the market's largest players. Enterprise adoption, for instance, will probably not take place before the product exits beta testing.

"My experience tells me businesses are going to wait until a GA release, or in Linux parlance, a supported distribution," he said.

Nevertheless, Rhodin said IBM Lotus remains committed to Symphony and to the open standard ODF for the long haul.

"We want to help in the establishment of OpenDocument Format as the standard for documents floating around the Internet," he said. "It's an investment we thought was worthwhile ... and necessary to get the standard to take hold in the market.

"Customers have likened what we're doing with Symphony to the kind of support IBM put behind Linux a number of years ago, investing in the technology and around the ecosystem as well," he added. "You can view this as a similar kind of investment by IBM."