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IBM dismisses OpenOffice as child's play

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IBM claims to have put more than $1 billion behind open source software, but the company is failing to pay even a modest amount of lip service to one of free software's most needed products.

Karen Smith, vice president of Linux strategy and market development at IBM, has been telling a number of publications that no open source equivalent of Microsoft Office exists. Lest you think Smith has been living in a cave, rest easy. She does appear to be acquainted with OpenOffice and its StarOffice incarnation from Sun Microsystems. These suites, however, are not good enough for IBM.

"What we haven't seen become available is a full replacement for Microsoft Office," Smith told ComputerWire.

Smith's comment points to an obvious fact - neither OpenOffice nor StarOffice have all the bells and whistles of Microsoft's suite. As caretaker of IBM's market development, however, she should see the need for promoting the open source products as a market creating opportunity for the Linux community as a whole.

The OpenOffice code has been downloaded more than 25 million times, and large OEMs such as Sony and Fujitsu-Siemens are shipping the suite with their PCs. The software's success helps out a valuable part of the Linux developer community and is key to making Linux on the desktop a reality for everyday PC users.

IBM's Linux aspirations sit on the server as opposed to the desktop. The company's PC business is hardly thriving, but what's left of it is centered around Microsoft. In that context, bashing OpenOffice makes some sense.

In a larger context, however, IBM's decision to take a pro-Microsoft stance on the desktop doesn't jibe with its billion dollar actions. Smith has been traveling the world for some time, extolling the virtues of Linux to a wide audience. She is the queen of hippies in the Peace, Love and Linux camp.

Smith tells Computer Business that IBM is taking a portal-based approach to delivering desktop functionality for end users. The kicker here is that Global Services will play a large role in customizing the desktop, messaging and collaboration apps for each customer. Is this IBM creating a fleet of custom desktops when a standard already exists?

IBM's approach is vastly different to that of relative Linux late-comer Sun. Sun is set to release its Mad Hatter desktop and Mad Hatter Management Server next month. With Mad Hatter, Sun has taken the best bits of the open source world, including the StarOffice productivity suite, GAIM messaging client and Evolution for mail and calendaring. Guess what? Mad Hatter desktops will connect into IBM's own Lotus Notes too.

What does Sun think of IBM's dismissal of OpenOffice?

"I think that is pretty funny coming from a company that led the office suite revolution with Lotus 123," said Peder Ulander *, a director of marketing at Sun. "That product basically doesn't exist anymore. They had their shot at the office suite and didn't make it."

Sun is using Mad Hatter to take aggressive pricing shots at Microsoft but is not being over-zealous about the potential markets it hopes to serve. The company is going after customers that employ a large number of workers to do relatively fixed-function tasks. Bells and whistles are not required.

As Ulander points out, these customers will need servers to manage all of their PCs, messaging, etc, which opens a nice non-Microsoft hardware sale for vendors. IBM could easily get behind this approach.

Linux on the mainframe might be interesting to a few customers, but it's not the OS's future. If IBM wants its Linux investment to keeping paying off, the vendor should push solid open source achievements instead of plugging Microsoft where it's convenient.

OpenOffice helps keep Linux in the public eye and keeps it creeping toward consumers' desktops. This is good for the Linux community and good for IBM. ®

* Ulander arrived at Sun, as part of the company's $2 billion Cobalt acquisition. This gives him a nice track record of working with Linux and making it easy for average folks to use. It's hard to measure exactly what proportion of the massive $2 billion fee Ulander accounts for, but we reckon it's a big chunk. The servers certainly didn't pull their weight.

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