As I mentioned in a blog I posted after Lotusphere 2009, IBM Lotus has been reluctant to go head to head with obvious rivals, particularly Microsoft. At Lotusphere, however, the company came out swinging, declaring intentions “shatter Windows” and “change desktop economics” with Symphony, the free Lotus desktop suite, and compete aggressively against Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) with the IBM Lotus Foundations appliance.

This new, feistier approach is paying off–as evidenced by the IBM’s announcement that it has signed up 1,000 Microsoft business partners for Foundations in just five months. I’m sure existing IBM Business Partners are liking this approach too. In the same blog post, I polled the question “How aggressive should Lotus be in marketing against competitive Microsoft solutions?” 62% of readers answered that they should “Take it to the limit–otherwise no one will pay attention.”

I first saw learned about the Lotus Foundation appliance at Lotusphere 2008, when it was still in development. I admit, I was skeptical—IBM has had a lot of false starts in the small business arena (remember when it acquired Whistle back in 1999?). Furthermore, Lotus hasn’t been a small business brand in years, and IBM usually refrains from aggressive, head-to-head competition against Microsoft.

But I went, and I saw, and this time, I think IBM is doing it right. I’ve had several demos at different IBM events, and Foundations makes good on its pledge to provide small businesses with an easy to use, turnkey collaboration solution—really! Foundations offers file storage, advanced backup and recovery, connectivity and security, collaboration and email and application services in one integrated package. Some of the things that set it apart include:

  • Automated installation and configuration; it discovers and maps the network for you, and auto-configures firewall and VPN, so you can deploy it in 30 minutes or less.
  • Automatic data backups, and full system recovery if a disaster should occur.
  • Symphony office productivity tools are bundled with, so you don’t need to buy Microsoft Office software.
  • Under the covers, you get the reliability and cost benefits of Linux and open source technologies (Foundations is priced less than Microsoft SBS servers), but you don’t have to know a thing about Linux or these technologies to run it.
  • It has the collaboration power of Lotus Notes and Domino, tailored for small businesses, with Notes clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

As important, IBM has factored in what’s often the biggest hurdle to getting momentum for new product: inertia. Outlook users can continue to use Outlook with Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook. And, IBM added VMware virtualization to Foundations, so you can also run Windows applications on it. Customers don’t have to give up things they already use–Outlook and Windows apps, such as Intuit QuickBooks. And, I almost forgot—you can also get a 30-day free trial, and it’s black and yellow, like a bumble bee.

The small business technology market and the channel partners that serve them are at a turning point. Many businesses are tired of dealing with the cost and complexity of Microsoft products and licensing, and channel partners are deciding that they need another option for serving customers that don’t want to deal with these hassles. This time, IBM is in the right place, at the right time, with the right solution, to give them a true alternative.