First Look: IBM Lotus Symphony Beta 4

IBM Lotus Symphony is one of the newer free office productivity suites out there, although the Lotus name itself has a long pedigree. Like OpenOffice.org--a free productivity suite fostered by Sun Microsystems--Lotus Symphony uses the OpenDocument Format (ODF), with reverse-engineered support for Microsoft Office formats, such as doc and xls.

I decided to try the latest Lotus Symphony Beta 4 to see how it compares with typical office suite products, particularly my currently standard, OpenOffice.org 2.4.

Unlike conventional office suites that have different programs for word processing and spreadsheets, Lotus Symphony handles everything within one program. While combining an entire office suite into one program offers great integration and convenience, it inevitably leads to program bloat due to the inherent complexity of the codebase and its dependencies.

I noticed that the memory and disk usage of Lotus Symphony was significantly higher than that of OpenOffice.org 2.4. Also, I noticed that opening files and starting/exiting the program took considerably longer in Symphony than in OpenOffice.org.

Lotus Symphony does have good workflow capabilities. Each document is given a tab, so it is possible to have a text document, spreadsheet and presentation open simultaneously in the same window. Toolbars, panels and menus change depending on the current active document type, and everything seems to work together as it should.

Those accustomed to Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org may find Symphony's colorful interface and unconventional layout to be somewhat new. However, Lotus Symphony and OpenOffice.org have similar elements. For instance, the spell checker and the top menu bar are nearly identical. The reason for the similarity is that Lotus Symphony uses some of the same codebase found in OpenOffice.org.

One thing that I missed was the OpenOffice.org emphasis on the use of styles to format text. In Lotus Symphony, text must be formatted manually.

There are a few things that I simply did not like about Lotus Symphony. Downloading the program in the first place was much harder than it had to be. I could understand IBM wanting to log each download by requesting user information, but the download itself is done by default through a cumbersome Java applet that seemed absolutely unnecessary. Running any applet you happen to find online is very seldom a good idea, even if it comes from IBM. I later found out that an HTTP download link, which should be the default option, is present but is somewhat hidden.

Lotus Symphony also reassigned my ODF file associations away from OpenOffice.org without asking me. Beta software should never usurp file associations like that, especially without permission. These things should be fixed so as to not adversely affect the final release.

Lotus Symphony is available for Windows and Linux here. A software development kit is available on the Lotus Symphony Web site to facilitate the development of plugins.

About the Author

Will Kraft is a Web designer, technical consultant, and freelance writer. His website is Pagewizard Web Design. You can contact Will at will@pagewizardwebdesign.com.

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