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Like the Web-browser world before Firefox, the market for so-called productivity software–word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation tools–has been torpid for years, dominated almost completely by Microsoft. But no longer.

IBM’s release of a test version of the Lotus Symphony productivity suite earlier this month adds another option to the list of free Microsoft Office alternatives, which already include Google’s Docs, Apple’s iWork, and the open-source OpenOffice programs, on which Symphony itself is based.

A utilitarian package with a few thoughtful design innovations, Symphony lacks many of Office’s new advanced features, but IBM’s brand and promises for “aggressive” development could make it increasingly attractive over time. (Symphony is only available for Windows and Linux users today, although a Mac version is in the works.)

Ironically, computer users familiar only with older versions of Office may find using Symphony easier than switching to Office 2007, which featured Microsoft’s first radical face-lift in years.

Symphony’s components retain a familiar look, with traditional drop-down menus such as “File,” “Edit,” and “Tools,” and a customizable toolbar along the top offering one-click access to specific file-, text-, and image-handling features. However, Symphony does offer two main interface innovations of its own.

First, the suite offers a tabbed interface similar to that of a modern Web browser, with each tab representing a different open document. Tabs for word-processing documents, spreadsheets, or PowerPoint-style presentations can sit next to each other, making it simple to move between these programs–a particularly welcome feature when sharing information between them.

Perhaps less successfully, all three programs provide a detachable sidebar that controls the properties of whatever kind of content is active or selected–text-, page-, and paragraph-formatting options in a text document, or table-cell properties for a spreadsheet, for example.

This can be helpful when building a slide show, in which text frequently changes size or look. I found it simply distracting in an ordinary word-processing document, but to Symphony’s credit, the feature is easy to hide.

The word processor itself will be familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft Word, as it offers most of the same basic features. Text is easy to add and manipulate, tables can be added or drawn by hand, and graphics can be inserted and resized. It can open and use a variety of formats, including documents created by versions up through Office XP, but not Office 2007’s .docx format.

A few new features of Symphony are handy in a Net-centric world, including the ability to click on a URL and have that page open as a tab inside the program itself, rather than in an external Web browser. However, unless users also have Lotus Notes installed, Symphony doesn’t connect to external e-mail programs well. Nor does it offer easy collaboration features like Google’s online Docs word processor.

The uncluttered look of Symphony Documents is overall a plus, particularly for those overwhelmed by Microsoft’s new feature-cluttered design. However, the same minimalism in the Spreadsheets and Presentations tools slips dangerously close to being simply bare bones.

PowerPoint has become an industry standard because it allows even the most tech-phobic of executives to create a professional-looking presentation in minutes. Symphony Presentations allows this too, but the tools are slightly clumsier to use and more limited in scope, and the end result isn’t quite as slick.

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Credit: IBM

Tagged: Communications, Google, Microsoft, software, IBM, e-mail

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