IBM’s Lotus Symphony proves it has what it takes to compete in the dog-eat-dog world of productivity application software.

While most folks want to have a debate between Microsoft’s Office and Apple’s iWork, I have fallen in love with the new kid on the block in the Mac-world, IBM’s Lotus Symphony. Unlike Office and iWork, Symphony is free, which is a huge plus in the new economic scenario that companies and individual users find themselves in right now. I like the clean, lightweight and straightforward interface of Lotus Symphony. While this suite of productivity applications was released for Microsoft’s Windows and Linux a bit more than 2 years ago, I believe that the (still relatively) recent release for the Mac OS X Leopard (Intel only) might be the kick-start this set of applications needs—Linux has a small market share and most people in the Windows world are imprisoned by Microsoft’s hegemony.

I will concentrate my review on the word-processor part of the suite, called Lotus Symphony Document, as this is the specific application in the trio (word-processor, spreadsheet, presentation) that I will use the most, and probably you too. I am actually writing this review in “Document,” Symphony’s word processor.

In the past, I have not been a heavy word-processor user, usually preferring to keep things uncomplicated and quick, using a simple text editor. Or if I was planning on designing something with words and images, I would go to the other end of the spectrum, and use Adobe’s InDesign or Illustrator for maximum design control. I have OpenOffice and NeoOffice installed on my newer Mac laptop computer. Both of those applications feel sluggish and clumsy to me. This is why up until recently I usually chose to quickly write with OS X’s TextEdit most of the time. If I get an idea that I want to quickly convert into words, waiting for the slow-loading OpenOffice or NeoOffice to open was irritating. However, seeing as I have been blogging just as much as designing lately, I came to the conclusion that I needed a more-complete word processing application. In an example of perfect timing, IBM releases Symphony for the Mac OS.

Symphony, in my personal experience on my 2.13 ghz Macbook, is faster than OpenOffice and NeoOffice. Objectors to IBM’s Lotus Symphony contend that it is a resource-hog, asking you to have 1 gig of ram if you want “performance optimization.” Symphony version 1.3 runs like a nimble speedster on any Intel Mac. Symphony has a tabbed interface that includes a simple web browser, and just feels more inviting to use than any of the open-source options, and the price is right—it’s free! Many older reviews of the Windows or Linux versions of Symphony came to the conclusion that it was slow to load and work with. With my use of the suite, I have experienced the exact opposite—it is quite snappy! Maybe it was because the older reviews were using earlier, less refined Betas of the software, or had less hardware resources.

According to IBM, “The development team has worked hard to ensure that Lotus Symphony not only works on Mac OS X but is optimized to take advantage of the elegance of Aqua GUI theme with the innovation and simplicity Mac users have come to expect.” In a strange juxtaposition of logic, it is the IBM-esque, stripped-down simplicity of the GUI that actually makes it feel right at home on the Mac operating system. Like many things IBM, there are some rough edges to the simplicity, like the way fonts look on the screen, which leaves something to be desired. To be sure, Symphony is not as pretty as iWork, but it is much less cluttered that Microsoft’s Office as well as OpenOffice and NeoOffice.

Based on the Open Document Format (ODF) standard, Symphony saves all documents to that format. It can open and edit documents created under OpenOffice and other applications that also follow ODF. Symphony can also open and edit all Microsoft Office documents saved in the older .doc format. Documents created in Office 2007/8 with the newer .docx (.xlsx and .pptx) formats can not currently be opened under Symphony. You can save to PDF format by exporting any Symphony file. However, the big question for the future is: will Microsoft’s proprietary file format continue to matter? The Open Document Format is the international standard format, and is catching on quickly in the rest of the world. (Besides the Microsoft world, that is.) Lotus Symphony is available at no charge by IBM, which uses the software as part of the company’s Open Collaboration Client Solution, which also includes the Lotus Notes and the Lotus Sametime instant messaging client.

The minimalist web browser included with the Mac version of Lotus Symphony works surprisingly well. Many past reviews stated that the browser was slow and crashed often. I found neither of these assertions to be true with the Mac version of Symphony. While the browser is extremely minimalist, you cannot even add bookmarks, its speed and simplicity (and color scheme) reminds me of Google’s new web browser, Chrome. The Symphony browser provides quick access to the internet without having to leave the productivity suite. You can open up multiple browser window tabs right next to your document, presentation, and spreadsheet tabs, all within the same main window.

Lotus Symphony has not gone unnoticed. The PC version of this productivity suite has been awarded “ 2008 Product of the Year for Desktop Applications,” blotus symphomy imagey CRN, a leading industry publication. “The Test Center found Symphony a snap to use, and switching to Symphony after years of using Microsoft Office was painless.”

Unlike many of the open-source options for productivity applications, and arguably, unlike even Microsoft’s Office Suite, IBM’s Lotus Symphony is truly cross-platform. Mac, Windows, Linux, Symphony works on all popular OS platforms. Currently, the Linux world seems to be holding on to their love of open-source productivity applications, OpenOffice and NeoOffice, and the Windows world is imprisoned by Microsoft’s Office suite, and Apple’s iWork is somewhat isolationist being that it only works for the Mac operating system. IBM’s Lotus Symphony might just have the right combination of elements going for it—true cross-platform compatability, simple yet elegant interface, speed, big-name corporate backing, zero cost, compatibility with other productivity suites, and a generalized disliking of Microsoft’s corporate hegemony—that allows it to take off. Come on IBM, lets not just hang this set of productivity applications out there to dry. Please put some of your corporate power behind this trio and prop it up so it can become popular. Maybe even spend some money on marketing Lotus Symphony—possibly even a TV commercial or two.

Update: IBM’s Lotus Symphony, in its most current version at 1.3, is faster, more stable, and more at home on a Mac than ever! The Application loads lightning-quick under OS X Snow Leopard—even with my relatively current, yet modest hardware configuration consisting of a MacBook C2D 2.13ghz with Nvidia 9400 video. Once loaded, Lotus Symphony operates with the speed and ease of a stripped-down, nimble performer yet comes backed with the raw power of a heavyweight contender. An Icon of IBM’s Lotus Symphony has a comfortable home in the exclusive gated community known as The Dock, located on my Mac’s desktop.

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This article has 9 comments

  1. Ron Reply

    IBM just came out with Lotus Symphony ver. 3 beta 2 just a couple of days ago. It is available for download and works on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

    It is still a bit rough around the edges, as most betas are, but the UI upgrades are nice, as are all the additional features.

  2. Albert Reply

    The download process for this application from IBM is like an IQ test in-and-of-itself, and many Mactards will fail this test, and never get to the actual download button… 😉

    IBM, we need “One-Click-Solutions” for the general Mac-using community if you want to see a wide level of adaptation with this application set.

  3. dougit Reply

    version 3 of this application suite is great! I plan on writing an update to this review when IBM’s Lotus Symphony is out of Beta.

  4. Chrsitopher Wilde Reply

    just installed the latest version – found it as I was fed up with openoffice’s sluggish and clumsy performance, and its awesome, can’t believe there is still so little hype about this.

  5. DKartch Reply

    Yes, IBM really ought to market this software. I just barely found out about Lotus Symphony and it’s been out for how long now? Free is a big promotion, especially for Microsoft Office users.

  6. Ian Reply

    You probably know this by now, but I’m not sure how many readers finding this page would (it’s the top hit on Google for “IBM Lotus Symphony web browser”): Symphony 3 is now out of the beta stages and the stable 3.0 release is available.

    The big difference between Symphony and OpenOffice.org, which I’m guessing also accounts for the speed differences in the two applications, is that Symphony is missing OpenOffice’s database, drawing, and equation editing modules. If you need any of those things, OpenOffice is definitely what you’ll have to use.

    If all you need is a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and presentation program, Symphony is definitely the faster alternative. Unfortunately for Symphony, I’m guessing a lot of people and businesses looking to migrate from Microsoft Office probably need that database element that Symphony lacks and OpenOffice has.

  7. Geoffrey Alexander Reply

    Lotus Freelance Graphics was to my mind definitely the best of the major presentation programs, a shame it appears not to have been included in Symphony.
    If Symphony wants to stand out from the crowd, why not include a simple ‘To Do List’ with ‘Carry Forward’ for tasks to be followed up? It need not be complicated, just a set of two or three lists for ‘Urgent,’ ‘Important’ and ‘Long Term Planning’ or something along those lines. A ‘Time Tracker’ would also make a difference, not hard to make but such tweaks would set it apart from all the usual stuff.
    (To see what I’m getting at, look up the free programs by SpaceJock.)

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