June 10, 2008

IBM Lotus Symphony turns old OOo code into enterprise Judas goat

Author: Mayank Sharma

Oracle and now IBM seem to have strange ideas about creating a business around open source software for the enterprise. First it was Oracle's Unbreakable Linux program, derived from Red Hat Enterprise Linux sans its proprietary bits and supported for peanuts to beat RHEL and similar community projects such as CentOS. Now it's IBM, which has taken old OpenOffice.org code under the now-retired Sun Industry Standards Source License and released it as a proprietary closed source freeware office suite. The first stable release of IBM Lotus Symphony, released last week, has no obvious advantages over OpenOffice.org. The suite is targeted at enterprise customers, at the expense of free and open source alternatives.

There are three clear giveaways that IBM is gunning for the enterprise desktop with Lotus Symphony. The first is the marketing material for Symphony. All the Flash overviews concentrate on examples that revolve around business users and how they can create and deliver business documents, presentations, and spreadsheets with Symphony. A video on the home page shows how resident superhero Crescendo "helps organizations cut down their IT budgets."

Second is the list of official supported Linux distributions. Lotus Symphony 1.0 is supported only on SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 (and Windows). These two distributions are the two most popular enterprise Linux distros.

This doesn't mean Symphony won't work on community distros such as Fedora, Ubuntu, or Mandriva. In fact, I tried installing the binary on all three, and sure enough it works, but not without a little tweaking before or after the installation, depending on the distro. Since these popular distros are not officially supported, it's not surprising that such errors show up in the final release despite being reported by users and resolved by IBM support admins on the forums while Symphony was in beta.

The final giveaway of Symphony's enterprise ambitions came a few days after the software's May release, when IBM announced its plan to sell help desk services for the office suite. If you can't find your way around the Lotus Symphony suite of a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, despite the free, extensive built-in help and online forums, IBM will help you do so for $25,000 a year. I'm not sure how many organizations, let alone individuals, will care to part with that kind of cash to support easy-to-use apps.

So it's pretty clear that IBM is going for enterprise desktops -- and there's nothing wrong with that. Many organizations and individuals would jump at the opportunity to use a free office suite from a big banner software vendor. But Lotus Symphony lacks the quality you'd expect from a product from the IBM stable.

For starters, the user interface (on Linux at least) doesn't look very slick and modern, and doesn't render well, especially in lower resolutions like 1024x768. Even at 1280x1024, which is the default resolution these days for most laptops and 17-inch LCDs, you'll have to horizontally scroll to access some functions in the sidebar which cannot be resized. Lotus Symphony is also relatively slow off the block compared to OpenOffice.org. But that's because Symphony is based on OpenOffice.org 1.1.4 (which is more than three years old), which was the last OOo release dual-licensed under the SISSL, which allowed developers to keep their modifications private. But Don Harbison, director of the ODF Initiative for IBM claims in an interview that the old OOo code has been heavily rewritten by IBM for Symphony.

True, there are a couple of good and unique things about Symphony. In addition to the slick features I mentioned in my review of the first beta release of Symphony, such as an ODF default save option, tabbed interface, Exposé-like window tracking, and built-in browser, the final release has tons of enhancements and a slew of useful plugins. The plugins are easy to install and add useful features, such as rebranding some components of Lotus Symphony, exporting presentations to Flash, connecting with an external database, and sending documents as email while editing.

But here again, IBM has botched up, since most of the important plugins (such as the database connection plugin and exporting presentations to Flash) work only with the Windows version of Symphony.

It's strange IBM decided to fork an open source application into a closed source alternative, when it could have offered support services around the OpenOffice.org suite itself. More so since it took IBM more than six months and four beta releases to get to version 1.0, and yet it only supports a small number of platforms and operating systems, and there's no release for Macs. Even existing components like the plugins don't work across the supported platforms.

IBM won't be able to leverage the "cost-effective office suite from a big banner software vendor" pitch forever without backing it up with better code.


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