IBM’s Office Suite Moves to the Cloud

IBM (s ibm) is getting into the cloud-based office productivity suite market, with the announcement of LotusLive Symphony, a product that offers users the ability to simultaneously collaborate on documents. It’s certainly coming late to the party, with the likes of Microsoft (s msft), Google (s goog) and Zoho all offering established and mature cloud office products. IBM is hoping┬áLotusLive Symphony’s tight integration with LotusLive and co-editing capabilities will help to differentiate it.

IBM is obviously taking aim at Microsoft’s Office Web Apps with this product, but while a cloud-based version of Symphony (IBM’s OpenOffice-based desktop office suite, which is pitched as a free alternative to MS Office) could be enough to stop existing IBM customers from looking elsewhere for their online office needs, the other players in this market have had much longer to establish themselves and have strong product offerings. LotusLive Symphony will need to be a very compelling product to persuade existing users to switch. Even though Microsoft was late to the cloud office market, for example, its Office Web Apps product has quite a head start over LotusLive Symphony, as it was released in June last year. Lotus Live Symphony won’t actually be released until late 2011.

It will also be interesting to see how IBM has implemented the real-time co-editing functionality the company is championing with this release. While, in theory, co-editing sounds like something that would be very useful to have, it needs to be well-designed, because it can be extremely confusing for users to find a document being revised by someone else as they work on it. Microsoft (s msft) decided not to include co-editing functionality in its Word web app for this reason (co-editing is available in the Excel web app). However, IBM believes there are occasions — typically when time, or a lack of it, is one of the most crucial variables — where co-editing makes sense for collaboration, rather than passing a document back and forth. To make sure the experience isn’t confusing, the company says it has worked on the interface and built in a lot of control into the co-editing capabilities of the product. For example, the profile pictures of co-editors are associated with the co-editing indicator colors in the document. The software also supports the ability to define sections within a document, spreadsheet or presentation, which can then be assigned to a particular user, with indicators around that section to let other users know to leave that particular section alone (future releases will enable users to lock down certain sections, so they cannot be edited by others).

Mirroring Microsoft’s approach to this market, while LotusLive Symphony can be used productively as a standalone product, it’s designed to complement and extend the desktop office suite. LotusLive Symphony is currently available as a technical preview. To try it out, you’ll need a LotusLive Engage or Lotus Greenhouse account; both are available free of charge for a trial period.

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