First Impressions: Symphony, Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon

Once upon a time in the 20th century, so long ago that folks weren't even using Windows in large numbers yet, there was an office suite called Symphony from a software company named Lotus. Symphony didn't catch on, and IBM eventually gobbled up Lotus.

But recently, in case you missed the news, IBM plucked the Lotus Symphony name out of the dustbin of tech history and slapped it on an OpenOffice.org variant. I'm using the new Symphony to write this column.

The initial reaction to Symphony's release has been tepid at best, for plenty of good reasons that I'll touch upon in a moment. But first, a word on how IBM's commitment to open source has paid off for the company, and on how Symphony has the potential to be important even if the final version fails to shed the severe shortcomings of this initial beta release.

IBM's use of the Symphony name may be a surprise, but the OpenOffice-based offering, itself, is not. Here's why: IBM's new Lotus Notes 8 includes a module called IBM Productivity Tools (how's that for some classic, leaden, Big Blue naming?), which gives you OpenOffice.org apps inside your Lotus Notes client. (Open a new e-mail message, open a new spreadsheet--hey, it's all work, right? Why should you ever have to leave Notes?)

Combining Notes with OO.o was possible because of an intermediate technology called Eclipse, which began as an internal development platform at IBM in the late 1990s. In 2001, IBM realized that it had built some great technology but had no immediate way to leverage it. Here's how IBM described the situation in its own "Brief History of Eclipse":

"We knew that a vibrant ecosystem of third parties would be critical for achieving broad adoption of Eclipse. But business partners were initially reluctant to invest in our (as yet unproven) platform. So in November 2001, we decided to adopt the open source licensing and operating model for this technology to increase exposure and accelerate adoption."

If you love something, set it free! IBM did just that with Eclipse in 2001. Supported by a foundation backed in part by deep-pocketed for-profits across the industry, Eclipse flourished, both as a software product and as a community.

The Lessons of Eclipse

Two things to note here: First, open source does not mean unpaid and unwashed nerds writing code in basements. And second, when you build software in an open-source bazaar instead of a commercial-software cathedral, you get a community for free. Eclipse is everywhere in software development these days; the coders I work with who hack away at PCWorld.com spend their days in Eclipse.

One of the components of the modern Eclipse is a cross-platform GUI framework, the so-called Rich Client Platform. Applications built with the RCP run on Windows, Linux, and OS X, and are easily tied together in what you can think of as a software mashup.

The RCP was a direct result of IBM's open-sourcing of Eclipse, and now, years later, that decision benefits IBM directly. The company has used the RCP to weld Lotus Notes to OO.o, yielding IBM Productivity Tools. Remove the proprietary Notes client from the equation, and you're left with an RCP-ized version of OpenOffice. Call it Symphony and put the beta on the IBM download servers! A new office suite is in town!

Of course, not really. This is just OO.o (apparently a rather old version, at that) with a new interface, and this beta, as tech reporters and bloggers alike have discovered, is not ready for serious use. The drop-down menus sometimes stay stubbornly open when they should not, the dialog boxes look awful and unlike anything else on the system, the fonts are a mess--and as a matter of fact, I just tried to save this column-in-progress and encountered the sort of dialog box that makes people hate computers. It read: 'Please check access right to library and network connection.' Huh?

Symphony's current incarnation also takes up far more disk space than vanilla OO.o does, and it takes half the morning (okay, not quite, but close) to start up.

But remember, this is an early beta we're looking at; you have to sign up for a free developer's account with IBM just to download the thing. It seems unfair and premature to declare Symphony a failure for having a pretty dreadful user experience at this stage.

Lotus Symphony, 2007: It's really OpenOffice.org with new siding, trim, and rain gutters.
Lotus Symphony, 2007: It's really OpenOffice.org with new siding, trim, and rain gutters.
I think Symphony actually provides hope for OO.o users, because it is the first serious reimagining of the OpenOffice.org interface. Symphony's menus and toolbars are different, it has task panes similar to those of Microsoft Office 2003, and it has a completely rethought Preferences dialog box in place of OO.o's truly miserable Options dialog box.

Reimagining OpenOffice.org

This is all exciting in a way, because, let's face it: The stock OO.o suite's user experience is a throwback at best--a pale and sometimes confusing imitation of Microsoft Office 97. The Linux version can't even play the nice alert sound that your desktop environment has ready and waiting; it gets your attention by beeping the PC speaker. What year is this, again?

Regardless of whether it receives the spit and polish it needs to become a pleasing alternative to OO.o, Symphony proves that it's not impossible to re-skin OO.o to be more in line with 21st-century notions of usability (or, failing that, to at least provide the darn task panes that some folks feel lost without).

I'm not suggesting that the Symphony interface will wind up flowing upstream to vanilla OpenOffice, but I do think it is possible, even likely, that Symphony's attempts at a fresh approach will cause OO.o developers to concentrate harder on interface issues as they work toward their 3.0 release next year. (They could start by taking a good hard look at Symphony's Preferences dialog box.) Also worth noting is IBM's recent insistence that it will take on a "leadership role" within the OO.o project, which has been held back by Sun's myopic steering for far too long.

Whether Symphony succeeds or not, it represents a big commitment to the OO.o project on IBM's part, and that could pay off handsomely for OpenOffice users in the future.

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