FIRST LOOK: Lotus Symphony, IBM's new, free, personal productivity suite

IBM's Symphony, the company's latest try at offering an alternative to Microsoft Office, sparkles thanks to the inclusion of a browser. And the price can't be beat!

For more than a decade, Microsoft’s Office has been unchallenged as the king of desktop productivity. Even free challengers have failed to make an impression on the suite’s market share, while commercial attempts to displace the software have largely come to nothing.

So why is IBM/Lotus stepping up for another try?

We suspect it is because this time, its approach offers some real innovation.

Previous would-be Office competitors have tried to replicate Microsoft’s approach of bundling a set of applications with similar interfaces and integration abilities. Symphony has a difference approach, instead offering a single executable that includes a word processor, presentation graphics package, spreadsheet and – vitally – a web browser.

We rate the last application so highly because its inclusion makes the software capable of doing almost everything that a great many knowledge workers will ever need, assuming their employer is willing to have them use web-based mail and calendaring instead of a dedicated clients for those tasks. Doing so is more than feasible: we used the un-named (but eerily similar to Firefox) browser to access Google's AJAX-infused Gmail and Calendar service and it rendered both perfectly, with even the Google Talk instant messaging service operating flawlessly.

That it did so means we feel confident it will be possible to provide some users with Symphony as the only application available on their PCs, a potential boon for administrators. That IBM has made the software open and already offers a small library of plug-ins to boost its functionality makes us even more confident, as it shows that customisation and enhancement of the suite will be possible. With web applications another option, Symphony therefore seems to offer a very different approach to tackling total cost of ownership without forcing users into tools that crimp their creativity.

We make that last assertion on the basis of a quick tour of the three applications. The word processor was instantly familiar, even if it lacked some advanced tools like WYSIWYG table editing. The Spreadsheet sucked up spreadsheets from Excel, retained their mathematical functions and altered their formatting in annoying, but not fatal, ways. Animation effects were easy to apply in the presentations package which was in no way threatening.

Our impression is that all will let knowledge workers get about their business comfortably, even if their output will not be as stylish as would be possible in Office 2007 which has long-impressed us with its extensive layout libraries.

On the downside, interoperability could be a problem. IBM/Lotus has made a great deal of the software’s use of the Open Document Format (OFD), but a text file we saved using that format was unreadable in Microsoft Word. We were also less-than impressed by the software’s startup times. Indeed, it took more than one minute for the software to become usable.

Overall, however, we believe that it is well worth downloading Symphony and giving it plenty of consideration. IBM/Lotus aims to make money from services that enhance the suite. But there’s an awful lot it can do as soon as installed. One of those things is simplify the desktop, an achievement which Office and its rivals have not really set out to accomplish in their long histories. Symphony’s new approach therefore makes it more than worth a listen!

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