Symphony - fully orchestrated office suite

An overview of IBM Lotus Symphony office suite

Alternative office suites are nothing new. For users requiring the trio of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations there have always been options. For some years, it has been possible to get OpenOffice for free and the commercial version, Sun's StarOffice, for US$69. More recently, Google Apps has been enticing business users by adding collaboration as an integral part of its office alternative. So why should we even care about IBM Lotus Symphony?

Given the myriad potential uses of "office" applications, your reasons will likely differ from mine. but for me it represents the first time I've tried an alternative office and found the user experience to be every bit as good as using Microsoft Word.

Despite the fact that it is free, Symphony is powerful, deep, well written and well documented. Aside from a minor formatting issue, I had no problem opening and editing documents, spreadsheets and presentations created with Microsoft products.

Not having used IBM Lotus products for many years, I still was able to edit using my favorite features in just a few minutes. When it comes to core office applications, it isn't hard to navigate.

For example, "word count" is on the Tools menu. Looking for track changes mode is under "Edit... Revisions ... Record". A little different than Microsoft users are accustomed to, but no impediment. (And, yes, this column is being written using Symphony.)

A quick search of the Internet uncovered a handy two page guide for MS Word users to find equivalent functions in Lotus Symphony.

In fact, the only quirk I found was that the "save" function took a mysteriously long time. Given, however, that Symphony was running on Windows XP under Parallels virtualization on Mac OS X, I can't necessarily pin the blame on Symphony.

A click on the "about" button reveals both the open source heritage and the breadth of programming muscle in the program. This modular suite contains close to 300 plug-ins. Almost 100 of these are courtesy of Eclipse.org. Eclipse is an "open source community whose projects are focused on building an open development platform comprised of extensible frameworks...." It would appear that IBM is leveraging this significant resource.

Any company considering migrating to an MS Office alternative is rightfully concerned about compatibility with existing documents. Certainly formatting incompatibilities will exist. Those using the "extreme" set of MS Office functions and cross-program APIs will likely have issues with Symphony.

While the API issue may never go away, the document compatibility issue should start to recede as users migrate to the vendor-neutral, patent-free OpenDocument standard. This XML-based standard is being put forth by Oasis and will ultimately insure that organisations are not forced to buy software from a specific vendor in order to access archived data.

The default, native document formats for Lotus Symphony are OpenDocument. ".doc" is replaced by "odt" for "open document text". "xls" becomes "ods" and ".ppt" becomes "odp". (The last letter signaling the data type.) For users yet to make the leap, documents can be saved in the Microsoft-but-near-universally-understood Rich Text Format.

In the end, Lotus Symphony is a solid offering and will certainly meet the basic office needs of many users. And you can't beat the price!

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Kevin Tolly

Network World
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