Updated: August 20, 2010
When IBM is concerned, a software product is going to be either a revolution or total failure. There's no middle ground. From a de-facto desktop operating system king to the largest IT company completely disinterested in the desktop market, IBM has always made breathtaking business decisions. When they released OS/2, it was make it or break it, but we all know that part. Black or white, no middle ground.
Is there? IBM Lotus Symphony may just be the product that could be somewhere in between, neither the killer nor the victim of a crazy technology tempest. Apart from the name, the software is otherwise unrelated to Lotus products from mid-80s, although the word Lotus evokes a very clear, very office-like connotations.
Legacy-like name aside, IBM offers desktop and business users a free office suite. Well, it does sound interesting. Indeed, this could be your choice of a word processor and presentation software, if you're not in a mood for Microsoft Office, OpenOffice or maybe online solutions like Google Docs and Zoho. So what can Lotus Symphony deliver that has not already been seen or heard?
Read on and you will discover.
IBM products have always been of a polar nature. And they will always have an odd angle that you would never have thought about. With Symphony, this begins with the installation.
Not an easy task. First, you will have to register on IBM site and go through some six different menus until you get to the download page. And then, you might be disappointed to learn that there's only a 32-bit version available. Furthermore, when you start digging for specific versions for your Linux distribution, you may get even more frustrated. For instance, the Ubuntu version, last update: 8.04 Hardy.
When downloading, the default option will be to use an obscure IBM download manager, but you can also choose the standard HTTP method. Both are quite slow and it will take some time before the package drips down to your hard disk.
I decided to try Lotus on a 64-bit Linux machine running Jaunty. The first thing that kind of worried me was how to get the i386 package installed. You will find instructions how to get the 32-bit Lotus running on 64-bit architecture, but the instructions are old and rather irrelevant. Instead, I managed to install the .deb file on a 64-bit machine by using the force flag with dpkg. After the installation, Lotus Symphony powered on well, without major problems or quirks. The Hardy dependency did not come up as an obstacle.
There's a license agreement too, on first launch.
Lotus Symphony sports a very unique interface. The main reason is the fact Symphony is based on a very old version of OpenOffice (1.1.4) combined with Eclipse and Lotus Expeditor. The end result? An interface with a retro-modern main view that lets you power the three applications, the word processor, the spreadsheet and the presentation software.
The interface is tabbed and new items will open just like inside a browser. And there's a browser, too, so you have a seamless desktop-Web suite. On top of that, you get modern, fancy stuff, like support for Microsoft Office 2007 format. The unexpected mix of old and new features and the main interface all lend Symphony a look unseen before.
The Java feel is palpable. It is far from being unpleasant, though. That said, the theme is very old school, mixing soft blue colors, rounded icons and 95-style dropdown boxes. Indeed, Symphony does not use the native system theme, so you'll experience some visual inconsistency here and there. For instance, on Ubuntu Jaunty, which was used for testing, plus the Lucid theme, Symphony did not use GTK and rendered all system menus and functions in an archaic way.
But it has an expensive, classy texture. The feeling is similar to running Open Solaris on your machine.
Compared to most modern office suites, Lotus Symphony manages less clutter, although some of the functions are less intuitive. If you're familiar with OpenOffice, you'll manage just fine, but some elements will seem out of place.
Symphony supports many formats and works well with Office Open XML, plus a whole range of other formats. The fidelity of conversions are high. For example, I used the template available for the odf-converter and the document was rendered 100% correctly.
The clip art collection is also quite reasonable:
After spending a few minutes exploring the menus, you'll soon dig in and forget the oddities. When it comes to providing results, Symphony does not disappoint and does the job well.
Like OpenOffice, Lotus Symphony comes with a built-in plugins manager, which lets you pimp up your office suite. The plugin manager worked well, however some plugins refused to work. It seems that most plugins are geared toward the Windows edition.
For instance, the MSN Messenger plugin did not work on Ubuntu at all, although the tool is merely meant to connect to your MSN account and pull the contacts and chat list, but it seems the plugin requires MSN Messenger to be installed.
An example of one of the plugins I tested is the presentation timer, which lets you know how much time you have left.
Widgets are another component that extends the functionality of Lotus Symphony, including the ability to use Google Gadgets in the main interface site bar, work with RSS feeds and web pages, and more. Again, a unique and useful function, which you would not expect.
Lotus Symphony also supports macros written in Visual Basic. This is another nice touch for Windows users and converts, as it does not force them to abandon the old ways. Instead, a very soft learning curve is provided, with the interface being the most challenging one.
As I've mentioned before, most of the functions are hidden away, but you can find them all under Preferences. New users might struggle a little discovering all the options and mastering the non-typical layout, but it's quite manageable.
Lotus Symphony is an interesting project. Although somewhat archaic and seemingly outdated, it is a very useful office suite, with many new, modern features on top of an older design.
The 32-bit only version and the Hardy stamp for the Ubuntu version give an impression that IBM does not place too much focus on this program. And yet, lots of cool and modern options are available in the software, making it quite useful and relevant. It's a confusing mix of old and new, wrapped in unique.
Overall, Lotus Symphony performed well. If you don't mind spending some time getting used to new looks and some non-standard features, the office suite will serve you rather well. It has that deep, corporate tinge that only giants can offer. Well, it's free, so you're welcome to try and see for yourself.
Version 3 is coming soon and it will be based on OpenOffice 3, so you should expect a very decent, very modern office suite, with lots of IBM-specific additions. I believe Lotus Symphony 3 will be a very useful software. But only time will tell.