Symphony: sweet music for IBM?

Everyone likes something for nothing, right? Except, of course that it often comes with strings attached.
Well, depending where you are in terms of your computer setup, you may or may not …

25th November 2007 at 12:01 am

Everyone likes something for nothing, right? Except, of course that it often comes with strings attached.

Well, depending where you are in terms of your computer setup, you may or may not welcome the fact that you can get hold of an IBM office application suite for nothing. If you’ve already standardised on Microsoft Office or even OpenOffice (the free open source suite from which IBM’s Lotus Symphony is derived), then you probably won’t feel the urge to move but if you’re starting out then you might feel differently. After all, free is free.

The Symphony name has been hanging around in IBM’s Lotus operation for many years. For old timers like me, it has connotations, but to most prospects it will just be a cheerful new name which implies harmony.

And, if you have a powerful enough machine, it does feel harmonious. I tried it on a machine with 768MB memory and it was clunky. I stuck in 1.5MB and it was a lot better, although some functions still took a while to activate while, it seemed, the program went off to look for them. Although a minority interest at the moment, I should mention that Symphony is available for the Linux operating system, as well as Windows, and is being readied for the Macintosh as well.

Each element in the suite has the same neat and functional look and feel. Once opened, you can flick between different documents by clicking on their tabs at the top of the work area. All programs run in the same workspace which makes for pretty fluid working.

The suite is not compatible with the very latest version of Microsoft Office but it makes a fairly good job of importing documents created by earlier versions. And, with a little bit of care, you can cut and paste elements between your currently open documents. IBM along with Sun, Google and others are pushing the Open Document Format (ODF) which could be good news were the rest of the world (ie Microsoft) to conform.

Perhaps the centre of gravity for applications is moving away from office suites and towards different forms of communication and collaboration. IBM’s Lotus Notes and Domino (and a few other applications) specialise in this space and might be able to give Microsoft a run for its money. Notes includes the Symphony applications almost as a side-issue.

Microsoft, too is working hard on collaboration applications. But it does rather enjoy the income it receives from its Office suite and is probably not too thrilled at these free alternatives.

Where this will all end up is anyone’s guess. IBM’s previous attempts to steal the Microsoft crown have failed quite dismally. But this time, it is offering a toe in the water at no charge. Is it smart or is it desperate?

My guess is that the only people that might adopt Symphony are those who haven’t yet committed to any kind of office suite. Or maybe people who’ve bought computers for their kids and don’t want to shell out for basic application software. Or perhaps the’re people who’ve tried OpenOffice or one of the free online office suites but prefer the cut of IBM’s jib.

This is not an industry-changing play. But it might help some people who want to get going with office functionality from a trusted supplier at no cost.

With luck they will then lure you in with more sophisticated products and paid-for support services.


David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World.

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  1. Even with Office installed it is worth taking some time out to look at these ‘free’ versions – they might not be a full replacement but they can offer some nice features.

    For example, the free OpenOffice suite has the the ability to save in PDF format. The orginal sources can be from Office.

  2. Thanks for the comment Joan. Appreciated.

    I just checked IBM’s Symphony and that has a ‘PDF export’ option (as you might expect).

    As an aside, I have three PDF file creators which pop up when I choose ‘print’ from any program. CutePDF Writer was the first. I seem to remember it wasn’t particularly easy to set up but once it was working it was fine.

    Others that I’ve experimented with are DeskPDF and Visage eXPertPDF. And they’re fine too. I suspect they were easier to set up, but I can’t actually remember.

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