Lotus Symphony: the free office alternative

Feb 10, 2011

Regarded as a niche office suite, or as a free alternative to Microsoft Office, IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0 proves to be more than that. Released for the first time in May 2008, as a freeware, the Symphony suite was constantly improved by IBM, and version 3.0 succeeded to appeal to users through its user-friendly interface (new sidebars etc.) and accessible features.

Lotus Symphony provides the users with the possibility to create, edit and share texts, spreadsheets and presentations, and is composed of:

    * IBM Lotus Symphony Documents
    * IBM Lotus Symphony Spreadsheets
    * IBM Lotus Symphony Presentations

The suite is developed by the IBM China Development Laboratory, in Beijing, and according to the company's estimates, as of February 2010 a number of 12 million users are employing Lotus Symphony.

For a user who has never worked with Lotus Symphony, the accommodation process will go smoothly thanks to the fact that the IBM suite embodies the code from OpenOffice.org 3, therefore most of the features and the look of the application will feel familiar. A big difference however, between Lotus Symphony and Microsoft Office or Open Office, is the fact that the three programs (text, spreadsheet, presentation) are enclosed in the same application. So once a user opens Lotus Symphony,  he/she will have direct access to all of the three programs.

Compatible with the three major operating systems: Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, Lotus Symphony supports the Microsoft Office and the OpenDocument formats, and is capable of importing XML files and exporting PDFs (Portable Document Format). Also it supports the non-proprietary ODF (Open Document Format) - lately also supported by Microsoft Office.
Unlike Microsoft Office, Lotus Symphony can't deal with complex office tasks, it doesn't have an email client or database app, and its resources are quite limited. A good example of the latter situation would be the fact that a user needs to wait for a few seconds before the Lotus application starts, and if more programs are run in parallel, the image freezes. Although IBM Lotus Symphony can open the MS document formats (such as .DOC, .XLS, .PPT etc.), in the process the document may lose quality and formatting.

Lotus Symphony was created as a basic tool for handling day by day tasks in an office, or even outside that. To make navigation easier, IBM has introduced tabbed sections: each application is divided into tabs, for a more user-friendly interaction. Apart from being an accessible suite, both in terms of functionality and price, Lotus Symphony can also be extended and easily customized.

Being built on the Eclipse platform, Lotus Symphony can be used by companies as an application platform / productivity tool in the RCP (Eclipse Rich Client Platform) development framework, for document processing/editing. The JAVA API provides developers with control over various objects in a file: fields, tables, pictures, charts, etc.. Also the IBM suite provides easy to use Java interfaces, for easily creating and manipulating documents.

Another plus of Lotus Symphony is that it's compatible with Microsoft's automation technologies, giving developers the possibility to control the suite from outside programs.

IBM Lotus Symphony is a great tool for daily tasks that have a moderate complexity. Thanks to the "free" status and to the many features resembling OpenOffice, the IBM suite can provide a good and familiar experience for the average user (that does not require too complex office productivity features), inside or outside the office.

To download and to find more information on the IBM Lotus Symphony suite, check out this article.