IBM's Unfinished Symphony
To those familiar with OpenOffice.org, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Symphony is how many features have been ripped out. In all the applications, the list is a long one.
To start with, many features for interoperability are missing. For instance, unlike in OpenOffice.org, in Symphony you cannot store data for use in other documents, embed one document in another or export a list of headers in the word processor to create the slides in a presentation.
In Documents, the list of the missing continues. All wizards are gone, as well as any capacity to create labels, business cards or anything else that requires a mail merge. No Autotext, bibliographies, hyphenation, thesaurus, outline numbering, autoformats for tables or master documents are available. Neither are many types of fields, including ones for hidden paragraphs or text, input lists, document information or user data.
Presentations and Spreadsheets are somewhat less devastated. Still, Presentations lacks the initial wizard or any sound support, and Spreadsheets lacks the ability to split or freeze windows to improve the viewing of long documents or to autoformat selected cells. However, in Presentations, you might think that more is missing than really is the case, because many items are concealed in main and right-click menus, and combo boxes for things such as slide transitions list only a half-dozen items at a time and require clicking Other to see other selections.
In none of the three programs can you edit keyboard shortcuts or customize menus and toolbars. You still can run macros, but without these customizing features, they are less accessible. Instead of assigning them to keystrokes or adding them to the toolbar, you have to drill down through several levels of menus in order to use them.
What is left is enough for most users in undemanding circumstances. Still, the logic behind what is omitted is obscure. Although the tendency is to exclude anything that requires instruction to learn or increases users' ability to customize, perhaps the true reason is to trim the hard drive requirements as much as possible.
Against these omissions, Symphony boasts only a handful of innovations. The single window for opening applications includes a Web browser accessible from the New button, but this hardly seems the time to introduce one. OpenOffice.org dropped its Web browser when its code was first released, and the integration of applications on GNU/Linux desktops is strong enough that nobody has missed it since.
Otherwise, new features—as opposed to ones made more prominent by repositioning—are surprisingly few in Symphony's applications. Aside from the single window with search and thumbnail features, probably the main addition is the Freehand Table feature it borrows from MS Office. And this feature, although showy, is slow and impractical compared to choosing the number of rows and columns by dragging the mouse over a grid.
However, Presentations does include one legacy feature that longtime OpenOffice.org users might still be pining for: the arrangement of slides in tabs. This arrangement is more economical with space than the slide pane that replaced it in OpenOffice.org's Impress, allowing much more room to display the currently active slide. But, this feature is hardly enough to attract users by itself.
How Lotus Symphony fits into IBM's corporate strategy is anybody's guess. Perhaps it is a matter of corporate pride, an attempt to revive a product line that was a contender in the office application market more than a decade ago? A desire to support open standards by releasing programs that support the Open Document format?
If the intent is to undermine MS Office's dominance on the desktop, as some have alleged, then as an under-featured, proprietary application, Symphony seems to have poor odds for success. So far, at least, there is not even any evidence that Symphony will integrate with Lotus Notes to offer the combination of office applications and calendaring that OpenOffice.org lacks. IBM would strike a greater strategic blow if it contributed directly to the latest version of OpenOffice.org instead of focusing on what seems a quixotic and halfhearted project at best.
That, in the end, is why Symphony disappoints. As a project, OpenOffice.org badly needs some fresh ideas. Its interface probably needs redesigning from the ground up, both in terms of names and positioning of features. Some features deserve to be more prominent, while some may be no longer relevant or require radical redesign. Symphony attempts all these things, but with no clear vision and only halfheartedly.
In the end, all Symphony offers is a version of OpenOffice.org stripped to the basics and suitable mainly for those who won't take the time to learn to use office applications properly. Such an outcome is disappointing for those who would like to see OpenOffice.org undertake some basic improvements, and not nearly sufficient to justify Symphony's independent existence.
Bruce Byfield is a freelance journalist who covers free software for Datamation, Linux.com and Linux Journal. He also does e-learning course design and marketing and communication consulting. Away from the computer, he enjoys excessive exercise, hanging out with parrots, listening to punk-folk music and reading any history books he can get his hands on.
-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)
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