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Communications

IBM's Symphony for the Office Worker

Could the new productivity suite from IBM threaten Microsoft’s popular Office software?

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.

A new work environment: IBM’s new productivity suite, Lotus Symphony, lacks some of the advanced features in the latest version of Microsoft Office. But if IBM listens to the suggestions of early adopters, Symphony could become a popular alternative.

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.

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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