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Another Perspective


Symphony is what IBM calls its collection of free (as in free beer) productivity applications based on free (as in free speech) code.  IBM has given its OOo distro a recycled brand name and put it to work as a printer's devil for its Lotus Notes client and Domino collaboration and publishing server.  But IBM is giving away ice in the winter.  You don't need IBM to get OOo, and, besides, productivity applications are headed for the web or, as Sun said before the Dot Com Crash wiped the smile off its overbite, the network is the computer.

It's a shame IBM isn't more imaginative when it comes to branding.  Symphony was the name Lotus once gave an ill-fated productivity suite that was supposed to dominate the Windows market the way the Lotus 1-2-3 led the spreadsheet market of the DOS era.  But that never happened.  What happened was Microsoft Office.  Lotus coasted downhill, making noise about a collaboration product called Notes until 1995, ten years after 1-2-3- was launched, when IBM ate the company for something like $3.5 billion.  The meal didn't' go down perfectly; IBM soon vomited up Lotus boss Jim Manzi.  But IBM just loved Notes.

The Lotus acquisition, an answer to prayers at Manhattan's St.  Patrick's Cathedral, gave IBM a second chance to outwit Microsoft and redress the outcome of the OS/2 versus Windows contest.  And, sure enough, IBM outwitted Microsoft as well as it did the first time around.

The Notes/Domino claim to fame is that it is the top collaboration system in the mainframe world and in the IBM proprietary midrange segment.  However, in the computing market at large it plays second fiddle to Outlook/Exchange.  And both offerings are facing strong headwinds.

William Hone
William Hone
The gutsy publisher ultimately
practiced what he preached

Google has persuaded a few people it is onto something good with its online document sharing and productivity applications (which use the same OOo foundation as Symphony Coda's code).  Among those persuaded that the future of productivity applications, or at least a sizeable portion of it, lies on the web are Yahoo, Microsoft, and Adobe, each with a variation on the web-based applications theme.

Can IBM be far behind?  Of course it can.  But it doesn't have to be.  IBM could, for a change, practice what it preaches in the collaboration server business.  IBM could hone its practices the way William Hone honed his.

In 1824, William Hone had an epiphany.  He was deservedly known as a daring printer and publisher, battling his social and political adversaries not only with ink and paper but also in the English courts.  Yet on the third of August 1824, he shut down his old, famous (or perhaps notorious) business and began a new project, one that would take him a couple years and a painful bankruptcy to complete.  (In those days, if you went bankrupt you ended up in prison, and that is in fact where Hone spent some time until his friends could clear his debts.)

What Hone created was an unusual reference he called the Every-Day Book, which was a sort of almanac.  It had entries for saints' days, folk festivals, and other recurring events.  It also had brief essays on a variety of topics, each tied to a particular day in the calendar.  And it had illustrations by the inimitable George Cruikshank.

For a while it looked like Hone wasn't going to ever survive long enough to complete his work, but in the end he did.  Hone succeeded quite admirably in building a new reputation for himself and his company and a finding new role in English society for both.

Some historians think Hone's change of course was basically a business decision, or a retreat from his social activism because the posture he took as a younger person had become too difficult to maintain.  However, at least one scholar of Hone's life and work, Kyle Grimes, believes that the real change in Hone was a shift much deeper.  Grimes says that Hone went from being mainly an advocate of what at the time were radical positions to putting his ideas into practice, albeit without fanfare.

His publishing company was an example of the kind of cooperative, collaborative enterprise that arose in Britain during the nineteenth century and contributed very substantially to the ability of that nation to build a vast empire.

The entry in Hone's almanac for August 25, Bartholomew-tide, provides a glimpse into Hone's trade, and perhaps his very own company, too.

Printing In Bygone Days
Shop culture developed in the early days of moveable type
and persisted into Hone's time and beyond

According to the Every-Day Book, printing shops traditionally began putting their devils to work on August 25, preparing for the changing of the seasons.  The entry also explains that in Hone's time every publishing company (and possibly ever printer) was a kind of society.  Each shop was called a chapel, and each had its own laws.  Hone's book even provides examples of some chapel rules.  Thus, Hone gave his readers a peek into the world from which the almanac emerged, a noteworthy distinction in publishing, which then as now is a trade notorious for exposing the secrets of others while jealously guarding its own inside stories.

IBM could act on the ideas it espouses by using its Notes/Domino system to provide customers with better service and more effective communications.  It could, as Grimes asserts Hone did, lead by example.  IBM might find there is a pretty good starting point for this kind of behavior at the mainframe end of its business.

Currently, IBM seems to have disappointed some of the stalwart big iron enthusiasts who participate in the newsgroup called IBM-main.  For quite some time various contributors to this newsgroup have griped about the poor and unreliable access IBM provides to technical documents they need to do their jobs.  Basically, IBM has some pretty extensive online libraries of product announcements and supporting materials, but these libraries are not sufficiently reliable to please the IBM-main crowd and even when IBM's systems are up and running it's not all that easy for users to find what they want.

It's all a bit ironic, because many years ago IBM had a very effective if technologically ancient system that provided online access to its documents.  Some users, such as IBM personnel, had very extensive access.  Others, such as IBM customers, had restricted access; for instance, they couldn't see all the pricing information IBM sales reps could access.  In any event, this system was named, of all things, HONE.  Today's IBMLink (or yesterday's, because for many users it is fading from view) and tomorrow's online library, whatever it may be called, ought to be a showcase for IBM's Notes/Domino offering.  It also ought to be one of the places IBM publishes information in Open Document format (ODF).

It must bother any IBMer or loyal customer who bothers to think about it that just about all IBM's computer-based communications, from technical documents to marketing messages adhere to the de facto standards established by Microsoft (with the odd PDF file thrown in here and there for flavor).  How could IBM fans not find it irritating that just about every slide presentation the Big Blue suits bring around is at its heart a PowerPoint file?

(Yes, there are IBM documents and presentations done in proprietary Lotus formats, but they are used mainly to make political statements for internal consumption, as they are in fact impractical in situation where they have to reach IBM's customers, who use Office, not Lotus stuff.)

George Cruikshank
George Cruikshank
Illustrator of Hone's Every-Day Book,
works of Charles Dickens, and much more

IBM's doesn't stand a chance of getting customers to use proprietary Lotus formats, but now that it says it believes in ODF files, it's a whole new ballgame.  Office users who haven't seen the OOo light (and aren't likely to in the near future) can work with ODF files; all they have to do is install the free file conversion plugin for Office generously provided by Sun.

If IBM wants to encourage progress and point to the general direction that progress should take, it should prepare its product announcements and technical support documents in ODF.  It should go even farther, and organize its materials into libraries that make the most of the document management features of its Symphony suite.  When it is trying to sell customers equipment, software, or services, IBM should organize collaboration within the customer's enterprises through one of its Domino servers, and support interaction between its people and the customer's personnel with its Notes email and instant messaging.

IBM's sales pitches ought to be built and distributed in ODF mode, and the same goes for its price quotations.

But there's a catch.  While IBM could really show off the versatility of the new Notes client software by putting its documents in ODF, which Notes can understand, not all IBM customers have a Notes client on their desktops.  In fact, an awful lot of IBM customers have Outlook clients.  IBM supports users with Outlook on Domino, but that's not the point.  IBM ought to be making a big effort to turn the corporate communications client world inside out.  IBM ought to be finding ways for Notes to replace Outlook, not merely provide a Plan B alternative to the Microsoft client software.

IBM might have to stop selling the Notes client for a hundred or a hundred and fifty bucks a pop and instead start giving it away, much as Adobe and Microsoft offer free downloads of their document readers and other missionary software products.  Or perhaps IBM could find a middle ground that provides a free Notes Light that does everything but manage collaboration, and make the collaboration upgrade an option.

Whatever IBM does, it ought to try and do it quickly before the many companies that like to poke fun at IBM have a field day.  Sun has already started.

Sun has played a complicated role in OOo.  It bought out the originator of the software, Star, and put Star's code (and descendants of that code) into the public domain.  Sun also provides the Java virtual machine that OOo and its ilk use as a foundation.  And lately whenever Sun offers a patch or upgrade for its Java virtual machine, which is installed on most Windows PCs, an onscreen message reminds users that the generic product is just dandy and free and only a click or two away.  This dilutes IBM's pitch for Symphony and probably confuses anyone who wonders if the two are essentially the same thing and if so which one is the right one to install.

Defending the Press
Defending The Press
Cruikshank defended the medium of his
satirical drawings and political cartoons

Of course, IBM isn't the only computer company that can be silly.  Sun pretends it can add value to OOo and sell its distro of the suite in a $70 bundle that includes extra software plus some support.  It might be a nice idea to have professional support available to users of OOo, but from Sun? C'mon.  It just doesn't seem like a real business, by which we mean one that a corporation serious about OOo can trust.  We don't doubt Sun's intentions or its diligence, only whether it can turn what looks like a diversion into a going business.

Well, maybe Sun's adventure with StarOffice is a bit goofy, but it has certainly been a great gift to the open software culture, and perhaps it isn't causing anyone, not even Sun, much harm.

We're not sure IBM's somewhat theatrical effort to promote a Symphone branded OOo is as benign.  When it plays in the world of open source software, IBM ought to look cooperative, not co-opting.  More than that: It ought to actually be cooperative, not co-opting.  But first it ought to get a better idea what it's actually offering.  IBM says that the free Symphony is a beta, meaning there's not support, but restricts this lack of support in the Windows world to XP and Vista.  That is a bit misleading, because Symphony works with Windows 2000, too.  The only snag Win2K users are likely to encounter if they try to install the IBM suite is that the desktop icons don't seem to work.  The fix, which IBM could have provided, is a set of valid icon files like this one.  This kind of thing is not merely an oversight, but evidence Big Blue is on an All Sizzle No Steak Diet.

There is some pathos to the way IBM is trapped in its rituals of branding and self-promotion while losing sight of the fact that its offering must be technologically sound and their documentation complete and accurate.  If it appears to be casual about a product, its behavior is far more likely to yield embarrassment than produce any real accomplishment.  With the Symphony gambit, IBM has provided an example of how a clever idea can still rise to its corporate surface.  But it also shown how such an idea can be pretty much ruined along the way without any executive coming to the rescue.

Perhaps the whole Symphony business looks a lot sounder to IBM insiders than it does to anyone outside the corporate bubble.  In that case, IBM's management might want to take a look at some of Hone's work, such as the Every-Day Book's little story about an English Lenten ritual.  It is an example of the way something might look different here and now than it did then and there.

IBM is making strategic changes to its Lotus/Domino products but acting as if its endorsement of some Open software somehow gives that software unprecedented gravitas.  But the situation is actually quite the opposite.  It was Linux that helped IBM get taken seriously by users looking at the future of computing, not the other way around.  The same is true of the Apache web server, which figures prominently in the survival of IBM's branded server products, such as Websphere.  And the same could be the case for OOo if IBM gets around to giving it due respect.  Or, as a printer might say, giving the devil its due.

— Hesh Wiener September 2007

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