Microsoft Office 2010 takes on all comers: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0
Don’t let the name fool you. IBM’s Lotus Symphony suite has almost nothing to do with the earlier incarnations of the Lotus Symphony suite — it’s now a rebranded spin-off of OpenOffice.org, with a heavily reworked interface courtesy of IBM’s programmers. It also features only three applications from the OpenOffice.org suite, but they’re the ones that matter: word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations.

 

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Launch Symphony and you’d scarcely know you were dealing with anything derived from OpenOffice.org at all. The look of the program is markedly different and, in my opinion, substantially more attractive. Open a word processing document, for instance, and you’ll see a familiar toolbar along the top, but also a set of slide-out panels to the right of the text area: text properties, a document explorer/organizer, clip art, text styles, and a Widgets window. Also, multiple documents opened within Symphony are now organized as tabs within a single window by default, although you can undock them into their own window by right-clicking the relevant tab and selecting “Open in new window.”

The Widgets panel lets you add various Internet-based services — Google Gadgets or other Web pages — into that window for reference or access to online applications. The usefulness of this feature is a little unclear, but it seems like it’s being positioned as an open-ended version of the reference panel that’s used in Word for translations, word definitions, and more.

One omission that would have been handy is support for the enhanced right-click context menu available through the Windows 7 Taskbar and Start menu. This typically provides access to recently used documents or common program functions. OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice don’t have this either, but IBM could have easily added this extra bit of system integration while it was redesigning the rest of the program’s look.

While Symphony may look different, most of its features (apart from obviously new things like the Widgets panel) and their behavior are almost identical to the OpenOffice.org counterparts. Anyone who has cut his or her teeth on the former program shouldn’t have trouble figuring out how Symphony works. Most of the menus sport the same option sets, and utilities like the Template Organizer behave the same way.

Many of the new features that have come to Symphony 3.0 are courtesy of the new OpenOffice.org code base — such as support for Microsoft Office VBA macros, or the Detective (dependency and debug tracer) for spreadsheet equations. Symphony can open most Office 2007 documents — although you get a warning that some documents may not render with total fidelity. A number of files I tried, like the mortgage calculator spreadsheet I tested with OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice, opened but had the same issues as with those two programs. Password-protected Word and Excel files can also be opened, but only if they’re saved in the Office 97-2003 binary format; password-protected Office 2007 XML-format files can’t be opened.

The relatively stripped-down focus of Symphony means some features found in OpenOffice.org proper aren’t found here. WordPerfect users looking to open their documents in Symphony are likely to be let down; support for WordPerfect documents is not included and is not available through the plug-in directory either. Format conversion also doesn’t seem as well-supported in Symphony as it does in OpenOffice.org. When I couldn’t open an .html document, I looked for a plug-in to allow that. The closest I could find was an output filter that saves ODF as a .html document and a plug-in that converts .html files to ODF spreadsheets (not text documents), but no import filter. To that end, those already using ODF as their standard document format will find Symphony a lot more accommodating.