IBM spins OpenOffice

Lotus Symphony reincarnation could be a winner.

I've been using the OpenOffice productivity suite for all my document, spreadsheet and presentation work for the last two years with great success (even though 95% of the people I exchange documents with were using Microsoft Office, nobody ever noticed). However,, like many open source efforts, needs some marketing help, a big name to push them into the spotlight. And while I’m surprised IBM has volunteered, that's exactly what is happening, with a twist.

There are a few complications. IBM calls its new office productivity suite, built upon OpenOffice, Lotus Symphony. This disappoints two groups. The first group, fans like me of OpenOffice, wish it kept the OpenOffice name to help further the open cause. The second group wishes the old Lotus Symphony office suite, an early competitor to Microsoft Office, had climbed out of the grave. Of course, I'm assuming people remember Lotus Symphony at all, much less remember it fondly. If you do, let me know.

IBM has officially released a beta version of OpenOffice, er, Symphony, not the fully baked version. I don't usually review beta products, but Google ruined that: it leaves the “beta” tag on products for years, even when they charge customers to use them. Since everyone can download Lotus Symphony for free here, my main concern about beta reviews is answered: people who want the product can get it.

Here's what I like about it: IBM adopted a single-window approach with tabbed pages, just like the Firefox browser shows multiple Web sites inside one browser window. Even more interesting, IBM shows all three document types inside that one window: Tab one is a text document; Tab two, spreadsheet; Tab three, presentation.

Two more opinions: Microsoft fan, John Obeto, reviews Lotus Symphony (hates it) and Sun's StarOffice (likes it). Plus, Kevin Tolly  reviews Lotus Symphony (and likes it, too).

This approach takes less screen real estate since all your open documents fit into one frame. However, the value lessens slightly because of the different orientation used to work on different documents. Text documents tend to be taller than wide, and spreadsheets tend to be the opposite. Still, when you have four versions of a document open at once, it's easy to control which version is front and center without covering your screen with document editing windows.

Another feature adds a paragraph and text properties toolbar that, by default, attaches to the right side of the document frame. You can float the toolbar or close it. If you've worked with page layout programs like Adobe's InDesign, or Web page development programs like DreamWeaver, you'll find this familiar.

Finally, I like that IBM is doing this at all. The Open Office group has little muscle by itself. Sun offers a commercial version of OpenOffice for sale that includes support and other goodies. Yet Sun historically flounders in PC products, and this is no exception. IBM may eventually flounder, but it has a great chance to provide these tools to millions, free, through a variety of distribution options. In fact, these applications are included in Notes Version 8, which probably explains the Lotus tag on the package.

A few things didn't work. Perhaps because of the Notes integration, or just because they're pushing other projects, users must download Java tools and the large Eclipse framework to run Symphony. Let's hope the download and installation process is still in beta, because both stink.

Second, IBM based its product on OpenOffice Version 1.2. By comparison, just released OpenOffice 2.3 (which downloads and installs quite easily). Version 2.0 has been out for years, meaning IBM purposefully grabbed an old version for some reason.

Also, the menus and titles, and even some of the features, changed from OpenOffice to Symphony. Why change the name of Web View in OpenOffice (no page breaks or spacing, just text) to Online View? The Word Count feature in OpenOffice gives the count for highlighted text and also for the total number of words in the document. IBM took that feature out for some unknown reason.

OpenOffice Impress, the PowerPoint equivalent, can add music transitions to slides. Lotus Symphony Presentations plays the slides with music, but I can't find where to add music in the transition. Since this is beta, it could be added, just like IBM could do a better job counting words.

All in all, Lotus Symphony reincarted with a thousand changes looks good, performs relatively well, and should gain many fans if IBM maintains a positive marketing presence with Symphony. I also request that IBM, if it wants to bring back another Lotus product, take a look at the old Personal Information Manager program called Agenda.

While giant enterprises -- the primary market for IBM software -- won't adopt Lotus Symphony in huge numbers, small businesses should consider doing so. With no programming written specifically to pull mainframe data down to the desktop so it can get hidden inside a Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet, small businesses aren't tied to Microsoft Office nearly as tightly as big businesses.

So, small businesses, check out Lotus Symphony, compare it to Microsoft Office 2007 and OpenOffice 2.3, and see if Microsoft Office is worth hundreds of dollars more than either OpenOffice option. IBM obviously doesn't believe that anymore; maybe you should reconsider as well.

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