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Selecting and manipulating text in IBM’s Presentations can be noticeably clunky, and the ability to animate the text is far more limited than in PowerPoint.

Symphony’s spreadsheet tool is similarly basic. While offering virtually all the calculating and analytical power of Excel, its spartan interface offers few guides for novices. Experienced Excel users should have no trouble quickly picking up and using the program’s advanced features, but newcomers to spreadsheet creation will find Microsoft’s offering a far easier learning tool.

A few bugs and glitches may be fixed in upcoming test versions, which IBM says it plans every six to eight weeks. The program crashed several times over the course of a few days’ tests. Symphony programs can also take a frustratingly long time to load. They have a heavy memory footprint–in the case of a text document, about the same as Microsoft Word, a program not known for its slenderness. Responses across the board can occasionally be slow or jerky.

Two specific omissions in particular caught my eye. As a writer, I found the lack of a thesaurus baffling. The 1.0 version of Symphony shouldn’t be missing this under any circumstances. A grammar check could also be helpful.

Less critical, I missed OpenOffice’s ability to set Microsoft Office formats as the default when saving documents. IBM wants to push people toward the Open Document Format (ODF)–but in the real world, most people still use Microsoft formats, and this default feature saves time.

These and other issues have already been identified by IBM’s user community, which may turn out to be one of the suite’s strongest features. The company has promised that its community site will soon have a voting feature, allowing users to choose which problems will be addressed first by IBM.

Another interesting feature to watch will be the suite’s plug-in architecture, based on IBM’s open-source Eclipse application-development technology. For now, there’s little available, but it does allow third-party programmers to create Symphony add-ons. Tools like Firefox and WordPress have been vastly extended by outside developers.

IBM says that its main goal with the release of Lotus Symphony is to make ODF (which it helped develop) a true industry standard, replacing today’s almost universal reliance on Microsoft’s proprietary formats.

“We’re throwing our weight in here,” says Mike Rodin, general manager of IBM’s Lotus Software. “The IBM endorsement of [ODF] is already getting customers more confident in moving forward with [a Microsoft alternative].”

Maybe so, but the company has a long way to go. The free suite will likely appeal more to cost-conscious small businesses and individual users than to corporations with large investments in Microsoft tools. The vast majority of ordinary software users will ultimately care more about ease of use and compatibility than about which formats are being employed.

But IBM has made a good start, with more than 100,000 registered users in the first week. If it delivers on its commitment to actively develop the tools, fix bugs, add features, and listen to users, Symphony could become an Office alternative with real legs.

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Credit: IBM

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

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