As you all know, IBM just released Lotus Symphony, a free Office Application for Windows and Linux (with Mac to follow). I downloaded the Windows version and took it for a spin. Firstly, as a programmer, I am naturally curious on how IBM used Eclipse in Lotus Workspace. Not wanting to spend a penny on Lotus Workspace, peeking inside Lotus Symphony will simply have to do . Second, the screenshots look good and I want to compare it with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org and iWork.
First thing is to install it. The download is a self-extracting zip file, which you have to unzip then click setup.exe. Like any Windows-based software, it is easy. It is also less confusing than OpenOffice.org’s installation. Comparatively it takes much less time to install than Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org. The only surprise is the prompt to “restart” Window, especially if you are used to Eclipse. I am sure there is a good reason.
Then come the first disappointment: When you click Start->All Programs from Windows, you find that it actually installed three icons, one each to “Documents”/”Presentation”/”Spreadsheet” instead of putting them into a folder named “Lotus Symphony”. This is dissappointing because it is an old practice whcih Microsoft abandoned with Office 2003 and above (thank god). The second disappointing thing is the automatic installation of three shortcut buttons for the three applications on my desktop. I would had prefer the installation process ask me whether I want this done rather than assuming I want it. Of course, these are only minor issues.
Starting “Lotus Symphony Documents” reveals the main UI. It may not be as flashy as iWork, but it is certainly a refreshing change from Microsoft Office. It use a right hand panel which works a bit like iWorks right hand panel. It may be more simple than iWorks, but it is for the better coz it is more easy to use than iWork. Both iWorks’ and Symphony’s right hand panel performs virtually the same function as Microsoft much touted “Ribbon System”, but being placed on the right hand side rather than the top, it suits the current cinema-screen style monitor standard better. The “ribbon system” had to be made “smaller” so as to expose more screen area for the main document, but with right hand panels this problem does not exists, and it has more space to make the UI in it “larger” and better arranged.
What I really like is the “documents” tab where all your open documents are listed there. This means rather than openning separate application for spreadsheet, document and presentation, you have them all in one window, your main window. Back in the 90s when SUN release the first version of StarOffice, it has something call the SUN Desktop which contain all your open documents and actually do more-or-less what your main window do. However, it was so awkward and get in the way of your work that it was a relief when later versions of StarOffice/OpenOffice.org dumped it. This implementation by IBM actually helps you in your work. I also like the “thumbnail” feature (Windows->Show Thumbnails or Ctrl-T). Also note that your main menu bar, the one with “file menu” etc on it changed with different type of document. Well done IBM!
In terms of first impression on usability, it is probably better than Microsoft or OpenOffice.org. To be honest, I actually prefer its layout than iWorks: it is as clear, effective and well positioned as iWorks, but also simpler to understand.
Compared to OpenOffice.org, it is better thought out. Compared to Microsoft Office, it is less intimidating and less gimmicky. Compared to iWorks it has better functionality and Lotus Symphony’s simplicity stands out.
When it comes to website design, Symphony’s is less flash than OpenOffice.org, Microsoft Office and iWorks and wait for this… focused on the user! This might sounds surprising but if you look carefully, OpenOffice.org concentrated on developers; Microsoft Office concentrated on getting you to navigate the complex and different configuration of MSOffice landscape; With Apples, we find the classic Apple clear and simple presentation of what iWorks is, and is therefore simply a promotion page for the product. Perhaps this is because the website is still in its infancy. We just have to wait and see.
What Lotus Symphony lacks is what OpenOffice.org lacks: Nice templates and clip arts. At least with Lotus Symphony, it is easy to find ClipArts on its website. OpenOffice.org’s is buried somewhere inside the website.
Overall, Lotus Symphony is a credible challenger to MS Office. It does not have the “half-finished” feel of other office software, and compared to OpenOffice.org, the UI is more appealing. Eventually, the question of whether you will fork out about 100 dollars for Microsoft Office (Student Edition. Let’s face it, most of the world quality for this discount) will boils down to whether is the templates and cliparts collection in Microsoft Office is worth the money. At present, I say yes. Thus, there is no surprise that I think Lotus Symphony (and OpenOffice.org) should work on templates and clip arts to appeal more to end users.
From a programmers’ viewpoint, the whole experience have Eclipse RCP written all over it. The progress screen during installation shows standard Java reverse URL style (com.ibm….) and the word (org.eclipse…) appears a few time. The splash screen has the “built on eclipse” logo and the UI itself have several unmistakable features that shows it coming from Eclipse, e.g., Help->About IBM Lotus Symphony screen looks eclipse-like and (wait for it…) has “Plugin Details” and “Configuration Details” button. I also have a peek at the installation directory. Organization-wise it is a bit confusing intially, but an Eclipse programmer can easily decipher it. The difference might have to do with programming nicety such as separating source code with different licensing terms to ensure no accidental mixing and the ability to revert to old configuration quickly. One surprising thing is I cannot find any icons with “Documents”/”Presentation”/”Spreadsheets” to click on to launch the application. Eclipse RCP developer will not find this surprising, coz we know our favorite “<myapps>.exe” is simply “eclipse.exe”. Nevertheless, it would had been good to have these dummy “Documents.exe”/”Presentations.exe”/”Spreadsheets.exe” if only to make attaching them to “Start” menu easier for joe user. By spending 5 minutes inside the Installation directory, my appreciation of Eclipse actually improved!
Eclipse RCP programmers will also appreciate and know how IBM deliver functionality such as the top document tabs etc.
While OOXML vs ODF saga receive the most attention now, there is another front where Microsoft is targetted. Eclipse developers like me know that the Eclipse Foundation is also trying to wow developers who needs to “relearn” Windows API (for Vista) to use Eclipse Platform (RCP in particular) instead. Lotus Symphony will be a good showcase and is a convincing example. I am sure it will win more than a few converts in time to come.