LJ Archive

IBM's Unfinished Symphony

Bruce Byfield

Issue #167, March 2008

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.

Missing Features

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.

New Features and Old

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.

A Lack of Purpose

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.

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