The new open source office suite by IBM offers competition for OpenOffice -- yet it falls short in some key areas.
The strengths of IBM Lotus Symphony are also its weaknesses. Based on the OpenOffice.org source code, on the one hand, the beta of this newly released office application offers a much needed revision of the interface. On the other hand, too much of this revision takes the form of leaving out features, and the changes are accompanied by high hardware demands. This trade off means that what you think of Symphony will very likely depend on your own level of expertise with office applications -- and probably your computer's specs as well.
Available for both GNU/Linux and Windows XP and Vista, Symphony consists of three applications: Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets, whose functions are self-explanatory. The beta is currently available as a free download, and installs via an InstallShield interface, rather than using any native format.
Two of the first things you should know about Symphony is what it is not. First, although the name recalls past office applications available from IBM, the current incarnation is a fresh start, compiled from code that is either new or based on OpenOffice.org's.
Second, despite the announcement last month that IBM was joining the OpenOffice.org project, Symphony is apparently not a direct contribution to the project. Instead, for all the boasts on the product's web pages that the use of Open Document Format prevents you from being locked in to proprietary formats, the beta is released under a proprietary license. This move is completely legitimate under the GNU Lesser General Public License used by OpenOffice.org, although IBM does seem to be trying to enjoy the benefits of both proprietary and free software simultaneously. For all purposes, it is a proprietary fork of the OpenOffice.org code.
But does anyone besides IBM need a proprietary fork? Let's take a closer look.
The most noticeable thing when you start a Symphony application is how much more aesthetic it is than its OpenOffice.org equivalent. The background, as well as many of the icons, are coordinated in an IBM blue color scheme, giving a coordinated look that OpenOffice.org programs lack. In addition, OpenOffice.org's default two toolbars are reduced to a single, well-spaced one. Gone, too, is the status bar at the bottom that in OpenOffice.org gives information about your location in the document, the current zoom, and the entry mode that you are using. The impression is much less cluttered than in OpenOffice.org. It's also far more consistent between applications than in OpenOffice.org.
Symphony replaces one of the icon toolbars with a tab bar, handily confining all documents in the single window. The tab bar includes a button for starting new documents, and a thumbnail view of all the open tabs.
Another new top-level feature is a Text Properties window for characters and paragraphs that can float in, in the editing window or dock on one side. This window is ideal if you format manually, but has the effect of de-emphasizing OpenOffice.org's emphasis on styles -- although they are still available. For those who have taken the time to learn how to use styles, this de-emphasis may seem like a misguided encouragement of users in bad habits. It is as though a manufacturer offered keyboards arranged in alphabetical order to accommodate two-fingered typists while ignoring the needs of touch-typists. Moreover, while you can close the Text Properties window, Symphony does not provide any means to prevent it from opening the next time you start the program.
The Text Properties window aside, Symphony makes a favorable first impression. Not only is it much less cluttered than OpenOffice.org, but the editing window is far more consistent between applications than in OpenOffice.org. In fact, my first thought was that Symphony represented the interface overhaul that OpenOffice.org has been needing for years.
Next page: But when you dig deeper...
Digging deeper into the interface
To an extent, this impression continues as you start to use Symphony. So far, at least, Symphony does not have any major innovations, but it does include a number of minor ones, such a freehand table tool in Documents and a return to the space-saving tabbing of slides in Presentations.
Other tools are newly emphasized by being positioned more prominently in the menus. For instance, instead of being concealed among the menu options, the Direct Cursor, which provides a quick and dirty way of doing layouts in the word processor, is moved into the top-level of the Edit menu.
Similarly, Presentation improves on OpenOffice.org's Impress by the simple act of providing twenty professional-looking backgrounds for slide shows. These backgrounds are a little too heavy on the blues for anyone who doesn't work for IBM, but, even so, they correct an omission that has been left in Impress for far tool long.
Unfortunately, the more you use Symphony, the more the first impression diminishes. Open a dialog box, and you are usually back with the gun-metal gray that OpenOffice.org only lost in the last release. And while some of these dialogs have been tidied, most have not. In particular, the Macro window is still as daunting to new users as ever.
Similarly, while some of the changes to menu items make sense, others do not. "Instant corrections" seems more immediately understandable than OpenOffice.org's "Autocorrect," and the same is true of "Instant Formatting," which replaces "Autoformat" in the Tables menu. But the replacement of "Layout" with "Format" seems arbitrary, while "Create" seems a definite step backwards into obscurity compared to OpenOffice.org's "Insert."
In other cases, Symphony's designers seemed to have had outbreaks of a desire to imitate MS Office. For instance, from a design perspective, there is no logic to placing the Page Setup in the File menu except that that is where MS Office used to put it. OpenOffice.org's placement of page options in the same menu as character and paragraph settings seems far more rational, and also has the advantage of emphasizing page styles, one of OpenOffice.org's main advantages over MS Office.
Even more importantly, the interface improvements are often achieved at the cost of leaving features out. Understandably, the beta has yet to implement some features. However, the list of features removed from Symphony is a long one. OpenOffice.org's database, drawing, and formula applications are gone entirely. So are options, configuration, and the extension manager for plugins. Ditto master documents, autotext, all means for making the component applications interoperable with one another, most fields, and the macro tools for adding dictionaries and free fonts.
While some of these missing features might still find their way into the final version, the ultimate impression is that Symphony is OpenOffice.org for beginning to intermediate users, with most of the advanced features either de-emphasized by the new interface, or thrown out altogether.
Next page: Should you use it?
To use or not
Many users may never miss these features. Yet for others, the superficial improvements to the interface may seem too little compensation for all the missing functionality, especially since the change is not accompanied by any lessening of system requirements.
In fact, the reverse is true -- Symphony requires a substantially better computer than OpenOffice.org. Where OpenOffice.org on GNU/Linux requires about 200 megabytes of hard drive space and 128 of RAM, Symphony needs 750 megabytes on the hard drive, and 512 of RAM. Some of Symphony's extra requirements seem due to the clipart and Presentations backgrounds that it includes, as well as the need to install Eclipse and Java with it (in OpenOffice.org, by contrast, you have the option of not using Java, at the cost of losing a couple of little-used features).
All the same, in many ways, Symphony seems too little, requiring too much. Even with the changes that are likely between the current beta and the official release, it is hard to imagine Symphony improving enough to justify the added system requirements -- especially when you consider that the specs listed are a minimum, and should be doubled for both applications if you want optimal performance. Yet, even so, Symphony performs poorly when compared with OpenOffice.org, which nobody has ever accused of being a speedy program itself.
If you are a Lotus Notes user who wants integrated office applications, then Symphony is worth trying. Otherwise, the most you can hope is that some of Symphony's interface improvements might eventually find their way into OpenOffice.org, and lose the weaknesses and arbitrary changes along the way.
Given that OpenOffice.org is more fully-featured, makes few hardware demands and is under a free license, replacing it with Symphony seems pointless.