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9/24/2007
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Review: IBM's Free Lotus Symphony Beta 1 Office Suite Is Familiar Yet Different

IBM's offering is a scaled-down edition of OpenOffice.org, but the company has given them a bit of a UI makeover and promises greater involvement in the development process.

When IBM announced it was rolling out a free version of its Lotus Symphony productivity suite, I immediately had flashbacks to the original DOS version of the Symphony suite. However, IBM was evidently just using the "Symphony" name as a brand: what they have released is rooted in the open-source OpenOffice.org office suite, with a new shell provided courtesy of the Java-based Eclipse Rich Client Platform.



Lotus Symphony adds a different interface and tagged windows to a suite rooted in the OpenOffice app. (Click image to enlarge.)

I downloaded the current Beta 1 version of the product (other beta editions are on the way, along with a Mac edition in the "first half of next year" (according to the Symphony site) and gave it a quick sizing-up against the current version of OpenOffice (2.3). IBM also plans to donate programming to the OpenOffice codebase, but for now, Symphony is their first big project in this regard.

For a beta, Symphony looks and behaves in a pretty polished fashion -- I wrote this review using the program -- and I suspect a lot of that is due to it being derived heavily from what OpenOffice already is.

The Same -- But Different
The first major difference between Symphony and OpenOffice is the scope of each program. At this point, Symphony only has three applications -- Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets -- compared to OpenOffice's six. My guess is that IBM is trying to polish what are likely to be the three most commonly-used applications in the suite first, and that other OpenOffice apps will be rebranded later on as the work continues.

The second big difference is the presentation. Each of the applications in Symphony is available through a single interface: You can open a word-processing document and a spreadsheet document side-by-side in the same tabbed window. (OpenOffice, by contrast, launches each document in a separate full window.) Click on "Show Thumbnails" and you'll see all of the open documents in a set of scaled-down windows, along with a search box. Type a term in the search box and any document in that view whose titles match the search term will appear. (Terms are not matched against the contents of documents, though.)

The Symphony interface also sports a sidebar in a right-hand pane that displays commonly-edited text or item properties. The sidebar can be floated around or toggled off, and its different sections (like Font, Effects and Position for Text Properties) can be selectively collapsed. I would have liked to have seen this sidebar also able to support the Style List, which manifests in OpenOffice a free-floating window that can't even be docked anywhere.

Some of the menu options also vary from OpenOffice's, although the changes are often merely a matter of where things are located. Symphony has a Create menu for word processing in lieu of Open Office's Insert menu, with things like the Fontwork function (which OpenOffice locates in Format | Object) located there. This isn't a major problem unless you're already accustomed to where OpenOffice stores things; new users shouldn't have too many problems spelunking the menus to find where everything is.

Apart from the program’s tabbed interface, very few, if any, entirely new functions have been introduced -- at least, at this stage of the program's development -- so if you're familiar with the OpenOffice feature set there's little that will come as a major surprise. The Customize function in OpenOffice (which lets you reassign keyboard commands or menu items) is not present here, and the application-wide settings dialog (which appears in OpenOffice as File | Preferences in Symphony, Tools | Options) has been reworked both to reflect the smaller number of apps in Symphony and its slightly different feature mix.

Dealing With Formats
Any documents you've already created in the open-standard .ODF format (whether through OpenOffice or another program) will open natively in Symphony. Documents in the Microsoft Office 2007 OOXML format cannot be read by Symphony, but earlier Office 97/2003 documents open about as well as they do in OpenOffice itself. Symphony also preserves existing macro information in Office documents, although they cannot be executed as-is; you still have to rewrite Office macros in OpenOffice's native macro language to make them useful. My favorite document-handling feature from OpenOffice is also in Symphony: The ability to save as a .PDF file without needing any external plugins or add-ons.

Symphony seems to share many of OpenOffice's existing limitations. Some of these are nothing more than personal irritants: For instance, there's also no default mechanism for assigning a keybinding to a special character, something I'm fond of in Word and which I use a lot there.

There’s little reason to explicitly choose Symphony over OpenOffice at this point, apart from the UI changes (which are, admittedly, easy on the eyes). But I'm curious to see what IBM's future involvement with the OpenOffice development process will yield.

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