October 4, 2007

Sweet Symphony is out of tune with OOo

Author: Mayank Sharma

Last month, just one week after IBM announced it would help with OpenOffice.org's development, the company released Lotus Symphony, an office suite based on OpenOffice.org code. I found a lot of slick features in Lotus Symphony, but I worry that Symphony could affect the OpenOffice.org community adversely.

Lotus Symphony includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a presentation tool. You'll have to register with IBM to download Symphony. Installing the office suite is a no-brainer, and requires 490.5MB of disk space.

Symphony doesn't launch any faster than OpenOffice.org. It offers ODF as the default save option in all three applications, but it also lets you save a document, spreadsheet, or presentation in Microsoft Office format, or plain text or RTF. You can also export documents as PDF files or save them under a beta release of the OpenStorm format.

The best thing in Symphony is its use of tabs, each of which can hold an individual office document. The tabs look and behave the same way they do in the Firefox Web browser. Switching between tabs is smooth and almost instantaneous, which is impressive considering that, depending on what document a tab holds, the visible controls also change. For example, if you switch from a tab that has a text document to a tab that holds a presentation, Symphony changes the controls and adjusts the layout of the toolbars to match the presentation tool.


If you work on multiple documents at the same time, keeping track of documents in tabs can get laborious. Lotus Symphony has an ExposÃâ°-like feature that shows thumbnails of all open documents, but in this beta release, it has a few quirks. In the ExposÃâ°-like view, the documents are all labeled as if they are unsaved documents, so documents are labeled "New Document," speadsheets are labeled "New Shreadsheet," and presentations are labeled "New Presentation." This nullifies the find feature in the ExposÃâ°-like view that's designed to search through these open documents based on their file name.

Symphony also includes an integrated browser. If your document contains a link, clicking it will launch the browser in a tab inside the Symphony window. This saves you the time it would take to switch between the browser and the office suite. Symphony also bundles an illustrated in-depth help guide. Coupled with hands-on screencasts, these are enough to get anyone started using the office suite.

IBM has modified the look and feel of OpenOffice.org in a way that's designed to save users time. The whole suite can be controlled from a mouse, and all common operations are within a click or two. Common settings that depend on the type of document, such as type and size of font, text styles like underline, background color, page margins, and cell dimensions, are all grouped in a vertical properties sidebar for easy access.

Depending on what option you choose, additional items appear in a content-sensitive toolbar. For example, when you click the bullets button, a toolbar appears with bullet-related controls. When you're done using these, click the bullet button again and the controls disappear.

Symphony includes some changes in the menu structure as well. IBM has changed the location of the office suite's preferences as well as some of its options. You can choose to start Symphony in the background while your distribution loads, which can save the time it takes to launch Symphony when you open documents.

Bad implementation

Overall, Symphony is a more usable OpenOffice.org. In fact, for a casual, first-time user, Lotus Symphony is nothing like OpenOffice.org. It flawlessly renders complex documents created with Microsoft Office, correctly identifying all comments and their authors, tracking all changes, and importing and implementing styles.

But wouldn't it be better if OpenOffice.org could do all these things? I love the difference between OpenOffice.org and Lotus Symphony, but the way the features were implemented doesn't help the OpenOffice.org community. Since these features were developed on top of OpenOffice.org, wouldn't it be best to release them as plugins? Instead of helping the hordes of volunteer OpenOffice.org developers, IBM has effectively forked the project into a proprietary free-to-download office suite.

When the company announced its plan to dive into OpenOffice.org's development, it said it would initiate the process by chipping in code it has been working on as part of its Lotus Notes product, especially the iAccessible2 accessibility tool. That tool isn't included in the beta release of Lotus Symphony that's currently available for download.

Finally, IBM has put in a lot of effort to make Lotus Symphony newbie-friendly. The accompanying online virtual hands-on tours are detailed and easy to follow. Symphony users have access to additional graphics and templates thanks to the online gallery section the project launched in late September. Here again the project undermines OpenOffice.org users, since the terms of use for the gallery restrict using its content "for your personal, non-commercial use only and only in connection with your use of Lotus Symphony."

Conclusion

Lotus Symphony is an extremely useful office suite. Its interface is designed to save users time, and even in a beta release it's stable. But while IBM might be taking the format war to Microsoft with Lotus Symphony, it's doing so in the worst possible manner for OpenOffice.org.

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  • Office Software