IBM Strengthens Its Ties to the Open Source World

With respect to software sales, IBM has consistently played second fiddle
(perhaps, eightieth!) to Microsoft. IBM has not only had to compete with
big players like Microsoft, but also against the “open source community”.
This is a community which is often seen as the product of cooperation and
purity in technology. Its proponents point to it as proof that there is no
tragedy in the commons. It works on the premise that anyone can use and
contribute to the source code of a particular software with relaxed
restrictions relating to licensing or patents. Users then add their own
ideas to the existing code to help further the efforts of the overall
group. It would seem that IBM has recently taken the stand point that “if
you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. On September 18, 2007, IBM announced the
release of “IBM Lotus Symphony, a suite of free software tools for
creating and sharing documents, spreadsheets and presentations” (IBM
Website). As IBM becomes a bigger contributor to the open-source
community, it raises questions regarding the feasibility of IBM’s business
model, Microsoft’s patent protection, and the survival of an open-source
community in a patent crazed world.

IBM has unveiled it’s Lotus Symphony through, which holds
as its mission statement, “To create, as a community, the leading
international office suite that will run on all major platforms and
provide access to all functionality and data through open-component based
APIs and an XML-based file format.” In doing so, IBM has teamed up with
Sun Microsystems, Google and others. However, no matter how altruistic claims to be, IBM’s Lotus Symphony push is not the result
of the company’s belief in free quality products for all users; as a
corporation, its main concern is realizing profits for its share holders.
Rather, the introduction of Lotus Symphony is a direct attack on
Microsoft. The market has proved that IBM cannot compete with Microsoft’s
Office programs. However, IBM has found success with its Lotus Notes: a
client/server package for offering email and other collaboration services.
This success may be short lived, because Microsoft’s competing product,
Exchange plus Outlook plus Office Communicator, is integrated with all
Office Applications. In order to compete on this level with Microsoft, IBM
needs the same set of tools as Microsoft in order to successfully market
and sell Lotus Notes. By using, IBM leverages an existing
and established code base and document formats which are readily supported
by other companies such as Google and Sun. IBM has had similar success by
supporting the open source Eclipse IDE in order to offer a complete
solution for it’s WebSphere development platform. This enables IBM to
better compete with Microsoft’s .NET development platform which integrates
with Microsoft’s Visual Studio IDE . Although open-source programs have
been competing with Microsoft for a while without realizing a significant
impact in the market place, IBM hopes to use its clout to validate the

Microsoft may not have taken seriously previous attempts to steal away its
market share, however, with more key players joining the open-source,
Microsoft will have no choice but to fight back. Microsoft has a variety
of options to rebut the attacks. For starters, it always has the option
that IBM chose: add to the open-source world and establish a revenue
stream based on associated add-on products. Microsoft could also continue
on its current path and focus on customer retention with improvements to
current programs and customer service. But Microsoft has another option;
one which Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, has been alluding to for a while.
Microsoft could more forcefully challenge any potential patent
infringement on the part of the open-source community. Even if IP
infringement claims are not grounded, the mere publicity that open-source
programs are vulnerable to attack by Microsoft may cause users and
investors to shy away from the technology. If Microsoft opts for this
path, it should raise questions in the legal community as to the
effectiveness and the necessity of patents.

While the program itself is not patentable, the process which the code
creates is patentable. Vaver characterizes the purpose of patents as
stimulating the creation and development of new technologies. Open-source
programming achieves these goals without the added nuisance of a patent.
Allowing patents to be issued for minimal achievements, like one-click
applications, creates a roadblock for significant innovations in
programming to be made. Open-source communities thrive on non-ownership.
Without the use of patents, this community attracts top talent and creates
cutting edge software which is used by millions of users. Firefox, an
award-winning internet browser, is a perfect example of the quality that
comes from the open-source community. Firefox has continually introduced
innovative features while avoiding many of the security problems which ha
ve plagued Microsoft’s competing browser, Internet Explorer, and has
managed to secure upwards of 15% of the browser market. If Microsoft
attempts to flex its patent power to hinder the open-source community’s
creativity, then the role of patent would no longer generate innovation.
Companies like Microsoft, are using broad patents to restrict all forms of
competition. If patents are being used inappropriately, then it is time to
develop the law.

Despite IBM’s motivation for garnering support for the, its
presence will help to validate the open-source programs. Patents provide a
monopoly to an inventor as a reward for furthering mankind. However, when
companies use the monopoly power to unnecessarily constrain the market,
the patent becomes a tool which opposes its raison d’etre. Many of the
brightest minds in computer science have long realized the inability of
the law to reflect the realities of the profession. IBM’s Lotus Symphony
is the result of market forces and not IP law; it is a reality that is
inevitable when the law fails to keep pace with technology.

One Comment
  1. IBM’s attempt to get its foot in the ‘open-source’ game with IBM Lotus Symphony indicates a fundamental shift in user demand, but it also signifies a paradigmatic shift in the nature of the software market itself. It’s a new territory, and as such, Marasco’s skepticism is certainly warranted. Previously, we have conceptualized corporations like Microsoft and IBM as operating primarily on a capitalist and profit-driven motive. To remain profitable, these companies have had to protect the intellectual property of the products they sell.

    It’s not surprising that we would question the “real” impetus for these recent developments. However, a fundamental change in user-orientation and the resultant corporate transitions into this new kind of software market does not necessarily foreshadow an intent to strike back in future patent infringement suits. In fact, in my view, it doesn’t indicate that at all.
    IBM’s recent move to provide open-source services merely exemplifies a general forward-thinking trend in the modern software business model. This model is aptly identifying the futility of focusing solely on quality programs as their main product line. A technological lead in this industry doesn’t last for long. Instead, keeping a competitive advantage today must be driven by a new business model – one that is highly contingent on advertisers, add-on services and strong brand recognition. Accordingly, the traditional pre-occupation with patent infringement is moving quickly into the background, but in its place we could see a lucrative interest in trademark protection.

    It’s an interesting time. Unlike what we have seen up to this point, the intellectual property worth protecting for companies like IBM is the brand itself and not the tangible products that are being distributed.

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