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New Open Source Lotus Symphony Poised for Success

July 9, 2008

It’s arguably the prettiest alternative to Microsoft Office, with a clean interface in a soothing IBM blue. Oddly, the once-biggest name in computing christened it Lotus Symphony, after a spectacular and expensive failure that dates back to the days of DOS.

But this new IBM Lotus Symphony seems poised for success. It is the latest open-source freebie, with version 1.0 released at the end of May. It includes a word processing module, a spreadsheet and presentation graphics package. Its underlying coding draws on Open Office, with a radically different user interface by IBM. For the first version, IBM left out the database and drawing tools that come with Open Office, although they may show up at a later date.

IBM/LS demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of open source. Of course, it’s free, but unless you’re a corporate client of IBM’s, you’ll have to pay for support. The native format is Open Document, which means you can read and write and format documents in a standard fashion compatible with other open-source programs. By design (Microsoft’s), it can’t save documents in the latest version of Microsoft Office, though you can fake it by saving in Office 97 format. If someone sends you a document in Office 2007 format, you’re stuck, though that may change.

Like most open source, it is also a cross platform application. If you’re a Linux kind of guy and share a household with a Linux kind of gal, you can run IBM/LS on both. Better yet, there’s a version for Mac users in the works.

The interface may be good enough to pacify picky Mac users in mixed computing shops _ I sure wouldn’t try to foist Open Office on them. IBM has edited out some of the more obscure features of Open Office and left the important ones. Added is a properties box on the right-hand side of the screen that lets you adjust the usual stuff _ font sizes and colors, alignment, etc. Another feature that makes sense for cross platform use: All open documents, including a lightweight Web browser, are accessible from tabs within the program, as opposed to discreet windows. Thus, you can pretty much ignore the operating system if you wish, though it would be nice to be able to install non-IBM applications to use the tabbing system.

Does it have all of the features you need? Probably for 90 percent of users, and only you can figure out if something critical is missing. I’m going to stick with it at least until the final version 3.0 of Open Office comes out. That one is supposed to be compatible with all Microsoft formats.

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(Lou Dolinar writes a technology column for Newsday and hosts Lou’s Day, “designed to help normal people unsnarl their computers,” at www.dolinar.com. He can be reached at lou@dolinar.com.)

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