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IBM makes U-turn, joins OpenOffice

OpenOffice enjoyed a jolt of adrenaline this week as IBM announced Monday that it will join the open source software initiative. Analysts say the move should give OpenOffice a significant boost in its quest to take on Microsoft Office, but will it be enough?

IBM announced on Monday that it is joining the OpenOffice community, pledging to contribute recently developed Lotus Notes code and other resources to the eight-year-old open source software project. The move comes despite recent statements that it had no plans to officially work with OpenOffice in the near future.

Started by Sun Microsystems Inc. in 2000, OpenOffice is an open source office suite that backers hope will one day knock the ever-present and proprietary Microsoft Office from its lofty perch.

IBM has been a proponent of open source initiatives for years -- supporting and contributing to the OpenDocument Format (ODF), the open file format developed by OpenOffice, and even incorporating OpenOffice code into its own Workplace software back in 2005.

Big Blue, however, had yet to return the favor to OpenOffice, refusing to share its code with the open source community. That is, until now.

"IBM is very pleased to be joining the community. We are very optimistic that IBM's contribution of technology and engineering resources will provide tangible benefits to the community membership and to users of technology around the world," said Mike Rhodin, general manager of IBM's Lotus division, in a statement.

Back in February, Ken Bisconti, IBM's vice president of workplace, portal and collaboration products, told sources that because IBM had made substantial changes to the OpenOffice code it used to develop Workplace, "we haven't found an efficient method to contribute back" code to OpenOffice. IBM has apparently solved that problem.

For its part, OpenOffice is welcoming IBM into the fold with open arms.

"This is great news for the tens of millions of users of and the thousands of individual members of the project," said John McCreesh of OpenOffice. "We welcome IBM's contributions to further enhancing the product. But equally important is IBM's future commitment to package and distribute new works that leverage technology supporting the ISO ODF standard."

Now people will believe that OpenOffice will start addressing their shortcomings in a targeted manner.

Alex Fletcher, lead technology analyst, Entiva Group Inc.

The timing of the move by IBM is in part due to "pent-up demand" for a viable open source alternative to Microsoft Office, said Entiva Group Inc. analyst Alex Fletcher, adding that IBM provides OpenOffice with a needed injection of credibility. "Now people will believe that OpenOffice will start addressing their shortcomings in a targeted manner," Fletcher said, pointing to OpenOffice's relatively weak spreadsheet alternative to Excel as an example.

What will be interesting to watch is how much of a boost OpenOffice gets now that IBM has joined its stable of contributors. It certainly has a long way to go, but if OpenOffice ever does succeed in toppling Microsoft Office, open source evangelists may look back on this development as an important step along the way.

Jay Lyman, an analyst who covers the open source community at New York-based The 451 Group, said the move was long overdue, but with IBM now onboard, OpenOffice is poised to make a strong move on Microsoft Office.

"We're a little unsure why it didn't happen a few years ago," Lyman said, but "it does a lot for OpenOffice in that you've got another big vendor here that is interested in disrupting the market and taking on Microsoft and their Office dominance in the space."

Lyman also said he believes the deal will prove beneficial for ODF, as backers push for its approval by state and local governments that are looking for open file formats to archive government documents. Microsoft's own open file format, Open Office XML, recently failed in its first attempt to gain International Standards Organization (ISO) approval earlier this month, and Lyman said IBM may have decided that the time was right to strike.

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