OpenOffice vs. Lotus Symphony

The new open source office suite by IBM offers competition for OpenOffice -- yet it falls short in some key areas.
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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.

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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.

First impressions

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...

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