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.