IBM's free Lotus Symphony office suite makes a case for a nice, lightweight office program to replace, or use in conjunction with, OpenOffice and Microsoft Office.
IBM has been around the document-processing field for a very long time. Almost everyone has heard of, or even used at one time, the IBM Lotus SmartSuite or Lotus Notes programs. Lotus was acquired by IBM in the mid to late 1990s and has grown into a pretty common business office platform.
As is usually the case with IBM, they are never behind the curve when it comes to emerging technologies. With various free office suites and online technologies available to access documents such as OpenOffice, Google Docs, and Zoho Online, IBM offers a free office suite built off of the OpenOffice code, IBM Lotus Symphony. This free suite was actually released a few years ago and didn't seem to receive a lot of media hype at the time. The current stable release is Version 1.3, however, and Symphony 3 Beta 4 is available for download now and offers many enhancements.
Components and Features
IBM Lotus Symphony offers only the three main types of documents to work with. It allows creation of documents, presentations, and spreadsheets only, so it's a very lightweight office platform. Surprisingly, it also has a built-in Web browser, which could be convenient at times during document processing. Currently, there is no support for database files like Microsoft Office has with Access and OpenOffice has with Base. For power users looking for all of these advanced programs, you may be disappointed.
At the same time, Symphony's simplistic approach might entice many users who don't need or use all of the other components that are part of many office suites. Symphony provides the most common basics of document processing in a very user-friendly menu and toolbar format, which might suit all of their requirements.
Most of the menus and toolbars are laid out in very similar fashion to Microsoft Office, although there are some striking comparisons to OpenOffice as well. The toolbars are presented on the right side of the window with properties and configurations in widget form. One of the nicest features I found useful is that all documents are presented in tabs at the very top of the menu, making it extremely easy and efficient to have multiple documents open at the same time. Everyone seems to love tabs!
Since the software is built from OpenOffice code, it supports OpenOffice version 1 document types, as well as the OpenDocument formats. In the Microsoft Office world, 97 to 2003 file extensions are also supported. More feature information can be found at IBM's Lotus Symphony Web Site.
One of my personal gripes against OpenOffice is the cumbersome way it offers mail merges to the user. Microsoft Office has a much smoother and faster method for completing mail-merge tasks, and IBM Lotus Symphony works almost identically to Microsoft Office in this fashion. You can open the mail merge tool under the Tools > Mail Merge menu at the top. In the figure below, I created a sample address spreadsheet with typical fields found in an address list. As you can see, the mail-merge wizard is almost identical to Microsoft Office's. After the merge is completed, you have the usual options to preview, save, print, or email the finished document.
Office Suite Replacement
If you're a major user of all the extra office package components—such as OpenOffice Base, Microsoft Access, or the various math and drawing programs OpenOffice offers—then IBM Lotus Symphony might not be a fit for you. However, if all you're after is a nice lightweight document-processing suite, it definitely offers that. I haven't made a comprehensive comparison between IBM Lotus Symphony and all the other office suites, but it's definitely worth checking out.
For the longest time, I used OpenOffice for all my writing and document needs. Recently though, I installed IBM Lotus Symphony, and I've found that I prefer it over OpenOffice. For this TechTip, I used IBM Lotus Symphony and had absolutely no issues switching over to write this article.
Many of the tasks seem more straightforward and simpler to complete than they did in OpenOffice, and I very rarely ever used the database, math, or drawing programs included with it anyway.
Since I do use Microsoft Office for some tasks at work, I've found a lot of similarities between these two as well. Although it may not be the end all of document processing, IBM Lotus Symphony offers a great free tool either to supplement document-processing needs or to replace OpenOffice or Microsoft Office for basic processing tasks.