First look: IBM’s free office suite

IBM has become the latest company to enter the now crowded market for free office software. But is its Lotus Symphony software a real threat to Microsoft Office or simply another cheap pretender? Matthew Sparkes finds out

Hot on the heels of Google’s new PowerPoint rival, IBM has thrown its hat into the free office software ring. Lotus Symphony is based in part on Open Office, the open-source office suite, to which IBM recently pledged some of its own developers’ time.

Behind the scenes, both packages are essentially the same, but the look and feel of the user interface is completely different. The most noticeable change is that although Symphony is composed of three programs – Documents, Presentations and Spreadsheets – it appears to the user as one combined application.

All spreadsheets, documents and presentations open under one window, with separate tabs – similar to the way that Firefox handles websites. This could mean one less window cluttering your desktop if you regularly have two or more office applications open at one time.

This single window has a clean and simple interface, with little in the way of toolbars at the top of the screen. It is replaced instead with an options bar on the right that changes depending on what task you’re currently working on. This makes sense, especially when working with portrait format files, and gives you more room to work.

One niggling issue with the interface is the Open icon in the top left of the screen. Clicking it will give you the option to create a new document, but not to open existing ones, as you would expect – to do this you must go through the file menu instead.

Office compatibility

Like Open Office, Symphony supports the Open Document Format (ODF), the increasingly popular rival to Microsoft’s Office Open XML format. This can be implemented by any software maker free of licensing, so even if Symphony becomes unavailable in the future, there will more than likely still be other packages that can access your data.

Symphony also opens older Office document formats (doc, xls and ppt) as well as previous IBM file formats, but the newer Office documents such as docx and xlsx aren’t supported. Whether this is because IBM hasn’t had time to implement the Microsoft formats or it’s a deliberate attempt to undermine OOXML isn’t clear, but the lack of support may grate with users.

Older Microsoft documents converted without any major problems, although advanced features such as macros, are lost in the transition. When importing a spreadsheet we did encounter some issues with a graph, where each bar in a chart was offset by one place, but most formulas transferred successfully. This means a bit of manual tweaking may be necessary for some files, but less complex Word and PowerPoint documents imported without any problems and the formatting was very close to the original.

With PowerPoint files, even little extras such as slide transitions and embedded video clips remained intact. Symphony also offers PDF exporting, which worked very well and produced accurate versions of files.

Although there may be the odd compatibility glitch, there is little here that will intimidate people switching from Microsoft Office. The interface is clear and self-explanatory, and most menus match-up quite closely with rival packages.

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