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A Different Kind Of Office Suite

Tom's Definitive Linux Software Roundup: Office Applications
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Lotus Symphony (v. 1.3)

At first glance, IBM's Lotus Symphony appears to be a very basic office suite with only the core word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. A closer inspection reveals that Symphony is not an office suite at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead of serving as a collection of separate applications, Symphony is actually one application that performs multiple functions. You can open documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in different tabs, all within one Symphony window. Thus the entire “office suite” will be covered here, instead of being broken up into the word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation categories.

In order to easily switch between tasks, the main toolbar is located below the tab bar, as opposed to directly below the menubar. Additional toolbars appear as sidebars on either side of the currently-opened file. Along with the main toolbar, the sidebars change functions depending on the type of file open in the active tab. The tabbed approach makes Symphony's user interface unfamiliar for an office app, yet strangely familiar because of tabbed browsing.

Along with word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, Symphony has built-in Web browsing capability. Symphony's browser will definitely not replace Firefox, but it is nice to open the hyperlinks in a document within the same application, as opposed to opening a new browser window.

Surprisingly, Symphony was able to open this article with all links, icons, and special formatting completely intact. However, all the text in the document had jagged edges. When I saved this article as a .doc file and opened it in Word 2007, it had the same loss as every other word processor I included: the links within pictures no longer appeared. As with OO.o Writer, the tables lost all borders, but the pictures remained properly aligned to text.

Lotus Symphony's spreadsheet function has small cells by default. This caused entries with more than seven characters to appear as pound signs (#) until column width was manually adjusted (Ed.: Excel does this, too). Symphony did open my test .xls file with all data intact. I saved a Symphony spreadsheet as an .xls file, which opened in Excel 2007, also intact.

The presentations were actually natural with the sidebar-style toolbars in Lotus Symphony. It imported a test MS PowerPoint .ppt file with no loss of formatting or transitions. However, the featureset is lacking compared to PowerPoint and OO.o Impress.

Overall, Symphony is visually appealing and unmistakably modern. Unfortunately, while the color scheme appeals to the eyes, text within the document body, toolbars, and menus are downright unpleasant to behold, mostly due to heavy pixelization. The icons in the toolbars appear to be of different sizes, creating an overall “choppy” look. Also, Symphony treats tooltips and drop-down menus in the body and sidebars as windows, with all of the associated desktop effects for windows. As you can imagine, this can become annoying very quickly. Using any 3D effect animations for windows will cause tooltips and drop down boxes in Symphony to use those animations as well. That won't be a problem if you disable desktop effects, or simply choose conservative animations for your windows. IBM has assured me that this bug is being addressed. They have also said they are evaluating the possibility of adding 64-bit deb/rpm support sometime in the future.




Symphony definitely takes a new approach to the age-old office suite. If IBM can smooth out the rough edges, this app could easily replace the basic productivity suites currently pre-installed on most distros, maybe even Corel or MS Works on Windows machines. However, being so unfamiliar could potentially discourage users simply looking for an easy MS Office replacement. At the very least, IBM's Lotus Symphony is an application worth watching.

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  • -5 Hide
    ksa-_-jed , April 29, 2010 6:38 AM
    And don't bother looking for any anti-virus becuase you don't need it or cracks for your software becuase almost all app are free !!!!!!!
  • 5 Hide
    DjEaZy , April 29, 2010 6:53 AM
    ... for my laptop @ work the only licensed thing are win7hp and KAV... all other apps are free... infrerecorder, inkskape, OOo and so on...
  • 0 Hide
    bloody llama , April 29, 2010 7:34 AM
    Open Office and the other open source software are great for what they are, but try replacing Access 2007 or 2010 with something open source, and you'll be tearing your hair out.
  • 1 Hide
    jsowoc , April 29, 2010 7:36 AM
    I assume that OO 3.0.1 is what you have in the repositories - was that the reason for testing the older version (version 3.2 came out two months ago)?
  • 1 Hide
    JonathanDeane , April 29, 2010 7:38 AM
    bloody llamaOpen Office and the other open source software are great for what they are, but try replacing Access 2007 or 2010 with something open source, and you'll be tearing your hair out.


    This is very true, I love Open Office and for my home use it does 100% of what I would use MS Office for, that being said if I had to run a business on it I am afraid it would be worth it to pony up the dough for an MS product.
  • -3 Hide
    ejmarkow , April 29, 2010 7:54 AM
    Tom's Hardware omitted the best performing, most comprehensive, free and Open Source Accounting ERP software available for download. It's called "xTuple ERP PostBooks Edition" and utilizes PostgreSQL. This software is capable of running anything from a small to large business. Link: http://www.xtuple.org
  • -3 Hide
    killerclick , April 29, 2010 8:08 AM
    We installed Linux and OOo into one of our offices (sort of an experiment to cut costs) and it was a riot. Not that Linux and OOo are bad, it's just that the power of habit is too strong to break when Windows and Linux are concerned. Windows and OS/X... not so much apparently.
  • 5 Hide
    Anonymous , April 29, 2010 10:09 AM
    Open Source is the future. ...... companies that profit millions or billions off of proprietary software. They are what hold us back.
  • 2 Hide
    randomizer , April 29, 2010 10:29 AM
    killerclickWindows and OS/X... not so much apparently.

    Well it's not like Office on Windows and Mac are vastly different, I'd hope that users would feel comfortable using the exact same software...

    I must attest to the uselessness of OOo Calc though. It needs a ground-up rewrite. It's slow to load and process even a small to moderately sized amount of data and charts are slow to redraw when altered. I have not tested GNUMeric enough to comment on that but it's supposedly alot faster.

    I'm interested in looking at those project management programs. There's also OpenProj to add to the list.
  • 0 Hide
    haplo602 , April 29, 2010 12:23 PM
    hmm ... not my area of software, I try to avoid office apps as much as I can, but last time I worked in Writer/Calc it was slow and unresponsive. The best thing in Writer was the TeX like equation editor, way better than what MS had to offer. I think they made some progress on OOo since that time, so I'd have to test.
  • 3 Hide
    Tjik , April 29, 2010 12:24 PM
    Adding Inkscape to the productivity set and you've got a really strong offer.

    A note about Scribus: I don't how rich set of PDF tools MS Publisher has, but with Scribus you're able to create active PDF elements, optional JavaScript control of these elements, without having to buy Adobe editing software. In contrast to Adobe's software (I think this still applies) you can create whatever you want from a clean sheet. It looks simpler but when you start to dig deeper there are tons of options and possibilities.

    When it comes to productivity it's hard to beat LaTeX. Word processors are clumsy beasts, not automatically producing good documents. Linux is a better platform for LaTeX.
  • 4 Hide
    mitch074 , April 29, 2010 1:09 PM
    Scribus almost as good as MS Publisher? What are you smoking?!

    OK, to be fair, quality-wise there are three products at the top: Quark Xpress, MS Publisher and Scribus. However...
    - MS Publisher sucks when you send the file to a print shop: they don't like it. They scoff at it. It sucks for professional jobs. I cite my print agent here.
    - the Postscript and colour management code in MS Publisher is so far from the two others that, if you want reliable results, ... you simply won't use it. Scribus allows you to manually set the colour space of each and every element on your document, which is a MUST for professional printing, and has so many PDF export options (including a debugger, a MUST to ensure no transparency elements remain on the document and that all glyphs in custom fonts are exported with it).

    Scribus is bare when you open it: that's NORMAL. You want to see the documents, not the template collections MS Publisher feeds you.

    Next, Koffice and its document explorer: that's what Navigator in OOo is for. It used to be open by default in OOo, but MS Word users got so distracted by it they asked OOo to have it closed by default in version 2.0. Koffice didn't get the message.

    Font rendering in OOo: A complete rewrite happened between versions 2.4 and 3.1. 3.0 had most of the code in place, but it was deactivated. Versions 3.1.1 and 3.2 have nicely hinted, antialiased output.

    Database front-ends: OOo base has one very nice feature, in that it can draw interfaces on top of external databases. While Access allows you to create all-in-one files (forms and data in the same package), Base allows you to create forms that are actually Writer documents hitting on, say, a MySQL DB.

    Spreadsheet: Calc is the part that got the most work in version 3.2. You may actually forget about older versions, OOo Calc 3.2 is a different app altogether.

    Grisbi has one nice thing going for it: it's developed in cooperation with the French Ministry of Finance (through APRIL). GNU Cash is more US-based. If you're not French, Grisbi has no advantage over GNU Cash. If you are, though, Grisbi is damn cool.
  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , April 29, 2010 1:45 PM
    randomizerWell it's not like Office on Windows and Mac are vastly different, I'd hope that users would feel comfortable using the exact same software...I must attest to the uselessness of OOo Calc though. It needs a ground-up rewrite. It's slow to load and process even a small to moderately sized amount of data and charts are slow to redraw when altered. I have not tested GNUMeric enough to comment on that but it's supposedly alot faster.I'm interested in looking at those project management programs. There's also OpenProj to add to the list.

    Doh! Good catch, yeah it looks like OpenProj should have been here. This story has been in the system so long I forgot to give you a heads up that it came out today. Next time I'll be sure to link you to the preview before it hits.
  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , April 29, 2010 1:47 PM
    jsowocI assume that OO 3.0.1 is what you have in the repositories - was that the reason for testing the older version (version 3.2 came out two months ago)?

    The office suites and the word procs, spreadsheets, and presentation apps were done first - like several months ago before Communications Apps published - Ubuntu 9.04 repos. Good news is that the links are to the latest stable versions, so ya'll might not have the issues I did with the older versions.
  • -1 Hide
    Bolbi , April 29, 2010 1:48 PM
    "But what value has MS Office really added in the past decade?"
    As opposed to OpenOffice.org (which I really HAVE used extensively), MS Office loads much quicker. But the main plus that OpenOffice.org just can't overcome is the huge MS collection of clipart, photos, etc. I tried importing OpenClipart into OpenOffice, but there's no way to search it, and so you have to scroll through thousands of images to find the one you're looking for. Not fun. Creating cards with Word? Developing a website with Expression Web? I need that clipart!
  • -1 Hide
    randomizer , April 29, 2010 1:50 PM
    mitch074Spreadsheet: Calc is the part that got the most work in version 3.2. You may actually forget about older versions, OOo Calc 3.2 is a different app altogether.

    And it's still horribly slow. For production environments you'd spend more time waiting for it to redraw a chart than you would actually getting work done. I have little or no problem with other OOo components (bar subjective preferences) but Calc just isn't up to par performance-wise. The addition of antialiasing was a much-needed feature so it's good that they added that. Charts (particularly line graphs) without AA are hideous to say the least.

    adamoveraDoh! Good catch, yeah it looks like OpenProj should have been here. This story has been in the system so long I forgot to give you a heads up that it came out today. Next time I'll be sure to link you to the preview before it hits.

    Haha, no problem. I'll just bug you more often to see if there's anything in the pipe :D 
  • -1 Hide
    mayne92 , April 29, 2010 1:50 PM
    I love Linux articles! However, besides that...nice article Adam and the references to the others. I will have to read them later :D 
  • 0 Hide
    adamovera , April 29, 2010 2:02 PM
    TjikAdding Inkscape to the productivity set and you've got a really strong offer.A note about Scribus: I don't how rich set of PDF tools MS Publisher has, but with Scribus you're able to create active PDF elements, optional JavaScript control of these elements, without having to buy Adobe editing software. In contrast to Adobe's software (I think this still applies) you can create whatever you want from a clean sheet. It looks simpler but when you start to dig deeper there are tons of options and possibilities.When it comes to productivity it's hard to beat LaTeX. Word processors are clumsy beasts, not automatically producing good documents. Linux is a better platform for LaTeX.

    Inkscape is in the next segment - Multimedia Apps (Video/Audio/Images). I'm sure if I used Scribus more that I would find more positives to it, but ease-of-use is a big issue for people coming from the MS sandbox, and the thing about publisher was "Oh snap, it's who's birthday today?!?" and within five minutes you've made a card. But hey, Scribus is the only game in town and not bad at all considering the price tag, especially since Publisher is now $170 (considerably more than it was when I used it - like double!).
  • 0 Hide
    Miharu , April 29, 2010 2:47 PM
    For normal user, perhaps OpenOffice is a good alternative.
    But I feel MS Office product have more stuff and you really appreciate it when you know how to use it.

    I have tried OpenOffice since everyone said is a good alternative.
    After few tests, I perfer paid for something good than a open source.
    -Things like Access turn very badly. (weird format understand by OpenOffice only. You can't do multi-platform db.)
    -MS Doc have some notable differency. Just open the same .doc in MS Office and OpenOffice, you'll find many differency. This could be really trouble some when you want the same thing everywhere.

    But my point is just on "most valuable MS Office Product" (Word, Excel and Access). You can use alternative like OpenOffice for others products.
  • 0 Hide
    randomizer , April 29, 2010 3:00 PM
    MiharuJust open the same .doc in MS Office and OpenOffice, you'll find many differency.

    Unfortunately that's because the developers have to reverse engineer the format due to its proprietary nature. If something like OpenDocument Format was used there would be no such cross-compatibility issues because the standard is there to read by anyone, including Microsoft. But so far MS have refused to implement OpenDocument properly.
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