IBM to Develop OpenOffice.org with Sun

After a few years of flirting with the idea of developing its own suite of applications, perhaps under the Lotus banner, that support the OASIS OpenDocument format, IBM has decided to join Sun Microsystems in the development of OpenOffice.org, the principal open source ODF applications suite.

In announcing its move today, IBM acknowledged that it had been developing some ODF components for use with Lotus Notes, but will now roll them into its contributions to the open source community. Sun currently produces the commercial ODF-supporting suite StarOffice; and since late 2005, when Sun and IBM openly courted development groups to meet at IBM's Armonk headquarters to plan the future of ODF together, observers speculated IBM could be working on an "Office killer" to go up against Microsoft.

Based on what IBM stated today, there's two possible interpretations: One is that the company may have given up on its dream of resurrecting SmartSuite, to pursue a joint development course with Sun in which ODF applications would play an independent, though still contributing, role in Lotus networking apps. This is indicated by its statement that not only will IBM's contributions appear in OpenOffice.org, but also OpenOffice innovations will appear in IBM products. That would make sense if those products include Lotus Notes and Domino.

The other interpretation is the exact opposite, assuming the self-maintained products IBM referred to consist of an applications suite to go up against StarOffice. This, however, would assume that IBM is willing to release its suite under the GPL or a similar license, as Sun has done with StarOffice since 2000.

Linux Foundation attorney and board member Andrew Updegrove saw IBM's move today not only as express support for OpenOffice but tacit support for StarOffice as well. "With OpenOffice available for free, and StarOffice at a very significant discount from [Microsoft] Office, OpenOffice clearly offers the most credible and formidable ODF-compliant competitor to Office," Updegrove wrote today.

He then asked the question, but left the answer open, as to why the long-partnered Sun and IBM waited until now to join forces on the development of the program, not just the format. One possible answer, he feels, is that IBM sees now as its best opportunity to do something heroic: "The reality is that a chance to break an industry monopoly that generates $15 billion in revenues a year comes only once in a generation - when it comes at all."

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