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The Lotusphere Gauntlet

IBM is talking tough about its competition.
January 21, 2008

At Lotusphere 2008 in Orlando, FL, on Monday morning, I watch Michael Rhodin, general manager of IBM’s Lotus division, pull a server out of an envelope. It’s a send-up of Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s keynote at Macworld Expo last week, where the Apple guru unveiled the ultrathin Macbook Air notebook computer by pulling it out of a manila envelope. But Rhodin is doing more than making a joke: the move reinforces a major theme of his presentation at the Lotusphere general session, where he has barraged the audience with a slew of rapid-fire announcements. Rhodin has been sending a message to the audience that the big players in tech aren’t limited to Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. IBM, riding high off strong revenue growth at the end of 2007, is laying down some aggressive challenges to the likes of Microsoft.

IBM is upping the ante with Symphony, its free desktop productivity software. (See “IBM’s Symphony for the Office Worker.”) Kevin Cavanaugh, IBM’s VP of messaging and collaboration software, told the Lotusphere audience this morning that IBM has so far given away more than 400,000 downloads of Symphony, and that the company aims to “allow people to invest in innovation rather than spending money on commodity software”–a clear jab at Microsoft. Cavanaugh trumpeted Symphony’s ability to eliminate the need for customers to buy Office, and to allow them to substitute less-expensive Linux clients for Windows machines. IBM now plans to sally further into Microsoft territory by enabling users to develop applications through Symphony as well. “Symphony is an evolving, free alternative to the [Microsoft] .Net development environment,” Cavanaugh said.

These are only two examples of the mood pervading the announcements at Lotusphere. IBM thinks it’s on a roll, and the company is trying to ride the surge forward. At least at Lotusphere, these efforts are being met with ecstatic cheers from the audience. But IBM’s not alone in competing with some of Microsoft’s crown jewels: Google has also thrown its hat in the ring with the free, Web-based Google Docs. Adobe’s recent acquisition of the Web-based word processor Buzzword may become yet another challenge–one that could become more formidable if the company transforms Buzzword into a cleverly portable desktop application by means of its AIR technology. (See “To the Web and Back Again.”)

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