IBM's Symphony Hitting Wrong Notes, Reviewers Say

Early user reviews of IBM's new Lotus Symphony office software suite are unlikely to be music to IBM's ears.

While testers praised Symphony's slick interface, they also said the software, which is still in beta, has performance and feature-set problems. Users reported that Symphony starts up and runs slowly, requires much larger amounts of memory and hard drive space than OpenOffice (the software on which it is based), and sports fewer features than the free OpenOffice or its US$70 sibling, StarOffice from Sun Microsystems Inc.

Blogger Udo Schroeter wrote that while he was "somewhat blown away by the [Symphony] user interface," his overall verdict was that "a new UI skin with no real depth is not enough reason to switch [from OpenOffice]."

"Overall, I don't see this as an Office killer," blogged another tester.

That's not surprising, according to an OpenOffice.org official. John McCreesh says Symphony's shortcomings are less a reflection of its OpenOffice foundation and more a result of its reliance on obsolete OpenOffice source code.

Symphony "runs like a dog and has a pretty amateurish appearance," blogged McCreesh, who is OpenOffice.org's marketing project lead, late last week during the organization's annual developer conference in Barcelona. This "does beg the question as to why a company of IBM's stature should take software well past its sell-by date, and try and pass it off as a new product."

The latest version of OpenOffice, Version 2.3, was released last week. OpenOffice.org plans to release Version 3.0 by next spring or summer, according to a speech given at the Barcelona conference by Louis Suarez-Potts, OpenOffice.org's community manager.

Sun's StarOffice is also based on current OpenOffice 2.x code, which was first released two years ago.

Zigging where MS Office zags or just lagging?

In contrast, Symphony is built on code from OpenOffice 1.1.4, which was released in December 2004. That code has been heavily rewritten since then, said Don Harbison, director of the ODF Initiative for IBM, in an e-mail.

"Symphony is beta and is a work in progress... we are not finished," he acknowledged. But he also said that testers should not simply compare Symphony feature by feature against other office suites.

"IBM has little interest in chasing MS-Office's 'tail-lights'," Harbison wrote. "Lotus Symphony is powerful, simple, and focused. It provides all the tools and functions most businesses require without confusing features not required. ... In other words, no more, no less, than what is needed, as opposed to the alternative, which is wasteful, and unnecessary."

But early reviews for Symphony, gleaned by searching blogs via the Technorati Web site, indicate that IBM may have an uphill struggle trying to convince users.

One common complaint concerns Symphony's system load. Symphony requires 1GB of RAM and 900MB of hard drive space. In contrast, the Windows version of the latest OpenOffice, Version 2.3, requires just 128MB of RAM and half the disk space. The standard version of Microsoft Office 2007 requires 256MB of RAM and 1.5GB of hard disk space.

Besides taking up more system resources, said testers, Symphony also loads and runs slowly.

"I don't have the pokiest PC on the block, but in order to make [Symphony] run at any speed at all, you'd need to have a bit of grunt in your PC," wrote Stewart Russell on his "We Saw A Chicken..." blog. "My VIA SP13000 box takes a couple of minutes just to bring up the main window."

Simon Dickson, who blogs at "I'm Simon Dickson," acknowledged that Symphony is "prettier" than OpenOffice and "seems to include a few innovations" that OpenOffice lacks. His main beef was that Symphony "automatically snatched all the relevant file associations away from my OpenOffice installation," he wrote. "For me, with a product that is so clearly in beta, and only of interest to the sort of early-adopters who will already be running OpenOffice, this is utterly unforgivable. How dare [blogger's emphasis] they do this?"

IBM's Harbison said "the decision to have Symphony assume default application status" is "not final."

Slim pickings, sharp words

For now, Symphony includes three components: a word processor, a spreadsheet program and a presentation maker.

In contrast, the OpenOffice 2.3 suite includes eight applications, and through an "extensions" framework that Symphony lacks, the possibility for many more mini-apps.

A reviewer at Jensenius.org is hoping that time would prove Symphony's friend, writing that while "OpenOffice is probably the better product... I really would prefer to use Symphony. I hope that by the time I'm ready/forced to switch away from Microsoft, IBM will have this thing a little bit more functional and ready to go."

Here's a sampling of comments from other bloggers weighing in on Symphony:

-- Domino in Australia: "If you are going to launch a product with the "enterprise-grade" label, get the product to an enterprise-usable state that is acceptable for actual enterprises. Duh!"

-- CyberTech Rambler: "Compared to OpenOffice.org, the UI is more appealing."

-- Steve Tsuida at Kryos: "A great idea built on a great engine, so why tolerate such an underwhelming first impression?"

-- Braden S Douglass at A Trapped Teckno tNerdL "Viva la free!"

Symphony, for now, only comes in a U.S. English version and runs only on Windows and Linux. In contrast, OpenOffice is available in 100 languages and has versions for Mac OS X, BSD, Solaris and Irix.

While IBM has not laid out an exact product road map, OpenOffice.org says that new features in Version 3.0 of its offering will include the ability to blog or write wiki entries directly within OpenOffice and a personal information manager (PIM) based on the open-source Thunderbird application, to which Sun is a leading contributor.

The forthcoming OpenOffice update is also expected to include the ability to open Microsoft Office Open XML documents created by Office 2007, and it's expected to come in a native Mac OS X version.

Battling for hearts, minds and (maybe) control

IBM said two weeks ago that it will join OpenOffice.org and devote 35 full-time programmers to working on that project.

The company has also expressed its dissatisfaction with how OpenOffice.org is being run. It has said that it intends to take its "rightful leadership position" in the organization, which remains dominated by Sun, which created OpenOffice in 2000.

But this may be complicated by IBM's plans to aim Symphony at enterprise users, especially the 100 million that use Lotus Notes today. That will pit Symphony against both Microsoft Office and Sun's StarOffice, which has not made much progress against Microsoft's suite of applications.

Symphony's free price also makes it a direct alternative to OpenOffice, which has coincidentally been downloaded 100 million times.

McCreesh, however, said that reports of squabbling between IBM and other OpenOffice.org community members against Sun are overblown. At its developer conference last week, "there was a high degree of consensus," McCreesh wrote in an e-mail. "Here in Barcelona, it doesn't feel like a community at war with itself."

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