IBM's Unfinished Symphony

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When Lotus Symphony faces the music, the question becomes, “Do we really need another proprietary office suite based on OpenOffice.org?”

Talking about IBM Lotus Symphony in any meaningful way is impossible without constant references to OpenOffice.org. Consisting of three applications—the self-explanatory Documents, Presentations and Spreadsheets—Symphony is not only a proprietary rival to OpenOffice.org in the cross-platform office space, but also is based on OpenOffice.org code, a move made possible by OpenOffice.org's release under the GNU Lesser General Public License. Under these circumstances, comparing the two applications is by far the quickest and most accurate way to explore Symphony's general features and interface, as well as what new features it adds to the codebase and what it leaves out.

To say the least, the result is mixed.

Specifically, Symphony is the OpenOffice.org 1.14 code dropped into an Eclipse framework, without any attempt to include the various add-ons available for the original. The version choice has the advantage of ensuring that Symphony is based on a mature codebase, and the reliance on Java sidesteps the need to bring developers up to speed on every intricacy of OpenOffice.org's notoriously cryptic code.

However, these choices also extract a price. For one thing, version 1.14 is two years old and missing many of the improvements in the 2.x releases. These include such features as version 2.3's new chart system, the ability to use movie and sound clips in presentations, and the expansion and improvement of the on-line help. All that Symphony seems to have borrowed from later releases is the enhanced drawing toolbar.

As for any add-ons, forget them. Symphony does not even include ExtendedPDF, which gives users expanded control over exports to PDF. Although Symphony does allow exports to PDF, the feature is basic compared to the one offered in the latest versions of OpenOffice.org in most distributions, which install ExtendedPDF by default.

Similarly, although reliance on Java may speed development—IBM boasts that the current beta 2 was developed in less than two months—it does not make for compact apps without careful coordination of development. Symphony's installation size is huge—683MB compared to less than 200MB for recent versions of OpenOffice.org, even though it does not include versions of OpenOffice.org's drawing, database and equation editors. Symphony's start-up speed is slow too, taking at least twice as long as the latest versions of OpenOffice.org using the same equipment. Although these figures may improve in later releases, they seem unlikely to match OpenOffice.org's any time soon.

The Interface

Despite improvements during the last two years, including a change from battleship gray to beige, OpenOffice.org's interface has never been an example of beauty. It tends to be ramshackle, never sure if it should borrow from MS Office and other proprietary apps or develop its own design. Nor has any attempt been made to enforce design standards, which means that new features, such as the dictionary and font installers, follow a logic of their own. If there ever was a program that demanded an interface redesign, it was OpenOffice.org.

And, at first glance, Symphony provides that redesign. Its selection of blues with the occasional orange highlight may be chosen mainly for IBM branding, but the overall effect is much more unified and pleasant to the eye than anything OpenOffice.org has managed to offer so far. However, this unity is mainly on the surface. Open a dialog box, and you are back with OpenOffice.org's familiar, starkly functional designs.

In much the same way, Symphony attempts to edit and rearrange OpenOffice.org's menus. Because many OpenOffice.org features are omitted (see below), Symphony can hardly help but have shorter menus, making them easier to use. In fact, Symphony even has the space to make some features more prominent, dragging the Direct Cursor out of Tools→Options to place it in the Edit menu, or to make page numbering a top-level item rather than hiding it among Insert→Fields to the puzzlement of new users. Such changes can only increase ease of use.

Too often though, the changes seem arbitrary. Replacing Format Cells with Text and Cell Properties in Spreadsheets does nothing for clarity, any more than replacing the Format menu with Layout or the Insert menu with Create does. And, is there any reason for labeling spreadsheets with letters instead of OpenOffice.org's numbers?

The same mixture of usefulness and arbitrariness occurs with the positioning of items. Moving the Options item from the Tools menu to the File menu (where it is called Preferences) seems sensible, because the File menu is where you expect to find basic setup settings. But, why shift page setup from Format/Layout to the File menu? The fact that MS Word used to do so hardly seems reason enough.

A more concrete improvement is Symphony's borrowing of a Web browser format, opening on a useless Home page and opening new documents by default in tabs in the same window. From there, a document can be opened in a separate window via a right-click. This arrangement is enhanced further by a thumbnail view of documents in the Window menu, which can be set to view only a specific type of document.

However, the addition of a docked Properties window on the right side of the editing window is less useful. This window displays elements that are selectable from the menu in OpenOffice.org, showing Text and Paragraph settings in Documents, Page settings in Presentations and cell settings in Spreadsheets. Anyone familiar with OpenOffice.org might wonder not only about the advisability of another floating window to add to the Navigator, Styles and Formatting, Gallery and Data Sources (although Symphony eliminates Data Sources), but also why the Properties window is so important that it is the only floating window that can be docked on the right side of the editing window.

Even more important, the effect of showing the Properties window by default is to encourage manual formatting at the expense of styles. Particularly in the word processor, this emphasis is equivalent to teaching someone to make hand signals when learning to drive and not bothering to mention the signal light. More than any other office suite, OpenOffice.org relies on styles, with several features, such as tables of contents and outlines, being much more difficult to use if you rely on manual formatting.

Perhaps the Properties window is in response to OpenOffice.org users who do not want to be forced into using styles (as though styles were anything except a time-saver for them), but its prominence suggests that Symphony's designers do not understand the logic of the program they are mutating. If you are using the code the way it was intended to be used, the Properties floating window is an irrelevance.

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-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)

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Symphony in a Web Browser

Anonymous's picture

I suspect the answer is 'No', since no one is talking about it; but here's my question:

Is there a Symphony plugin or extension that allows direct edit of documents in a Web Browser that gives the editor the option to "Submit" or "Save" the changes back to the server?

IBM Symphony

Brett D's picture

Lotus Amipro had more functionality and was easier to use then Symphony. Why IBM cannot take Amipro and make a carbon copy work in open document is beyond me.

People in my work place using Word always look back at how easy Amipro was to use and how reliable it was and wish that we could flick Word.

If IBM want a winner then implement a modern version of the way Amipro worked.

Unfinished Symphony?

GordonKeehn's picture

Regardless of the Symphony's finished (or unfinished) state, I'll be using it for quite a while to come. Why? because it's the only currently supported office suite that understands Lotus Wordpro files. I've been using Wordpro since it was Samna Ami. I've got years of documents that have been lovingly maintained and upgraded from Ami through Ami Pro to Wordpro, and an increasingly creaky copy of SmartSuite with which to read them. I don't know why IBM, in it's infinite wisdom, chose to abandon SmartSuite. Other than the fact that they had no users beyond the few of us that liked Wordpro, or 123, and were willing to put up with no support, for an aging interface that we knew and loved.
Well, the interface has changed. For the better? I don't think so. I don't plan on growing to love Symphony. (Although stranger things have happened.) BUT I now have a tool that I can use to translate all those old files into something that I can continue to use through that part of the 21st century that I am privileged to see.

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