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IBM challenges Microsoft for the SMB desktop

Big blue forged partnerships with major hardware and Linux vendors

For most small to mid-sized businesses, software means Microsoft. For almost any category of business software — from word processing to spreadsheets, presentations to communication and collaboration — Microsoft is the de facto vendor of choice.

Alternatives do exist, but who wants to be the first one to rock the boat? Microsoft has grown so cocky about its position that it even bragged that it would soon steal five million users away from IBM’s Lotus Notus, a competitor to its own Outlook and Exchange.

That’s not the kind of threat that IBM takes lying down. On the contrary; it’s digging in. Big Blue claims that it is redoubling its efforts to win customers away from Microsoft, beginning with a big win in Asia and new partnerships with major Linux vendors.

First, says IBM, just because Microsoft enjoys seemingly unshakeable dominance of the U.S. business software market doesn’t mean that has to be the case everywhere. Big Blue sees a big opportunity for its own software in Asia and other emerging markets, and it’s backing up that speculation with real numbers. Just last week it announced a single deal with an as-yet-unnamed Asian company that it says will add 300,000 new seats to its Lotus Notes business.

One major selling point of Notes over Outlook is that while every PC that runs Outlook must also purchase a Windows license, Notes also runs on Linux. Per-seat licensing for commercial Linux distributions is typically lower than that of Windows, and community-maintained Linux distributions can be downloaded and installed for free. IBM is hoping that the low total cost of a PC running Notes on Linux will make such systems attractive to cost-conscious customers in emerging markets.

To further up the ante, IBM announced that it has forged partnerships with major hardware and Linux vendors to ensure that installing IBM business software on Linux systems is as painless as possible. Soon, Linux users will be able to obtain versions of IBM’s Lotus Foundations software that have been specially packaged for installation on Novell Suse, Red Hat, or Ubuntu Linux.

Lotus Foundations is a software bundle that includes not just Notes, but also the Sametime enterprise instant messaging system and Symphony, IBM’s competitor to the Microsoft Office productivity suite. By prepackaging it for the top three desktop Linux distributions, IBM stands to make Foundations a one-click install for the majority of business Linux customers.

This is certainly encouraging news for anyone who is seeking an alternative to the Microsoft-dominated business software market, particularly in emerging markets such as Asia. Whether any of this momentum will translate into increased sales for IBM’s software over Microsoft’s in the U.S., however, remains to be seen.