Best Microsoft Office alternatives

Best Microsoft Office alternatives

Summary: Thinking of migrating away from Microsoft Office? Our comprehensive review compares all the top alternatives on flexibility, features and price.

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TOPICS: Google, IBM, Microsoft
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IBM Lotus Symphony
(Credit: IBM)

IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0

Like WordPerfect, Lotus Symphony is one of the oldest names in word processing. The application suite was born out of Lotus 1-2-3, a phenomenally popular spreadsheet application that contributed greatly on the growth of the PC market in the 1980s.

Also like WordPerfect, Lotus Symphony was soon to be overwhelmed by Microsoft Office, the suite that dominates the market today. However, knowing the strength of the brand amongst long-time IT professionals, IBM re-released Lotus Symphony in 2007 as a totally new program based on the OpenOffice.org code base. As a result, it's available for Windows (XP through to 7), Linux and OS X (Intel only).

As OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony share much of the same code base, they tend to advance in parallel, with IBM slowly integrating the new features available in OpenOffice into the Symphony suite. Like OpenOffice.org, Lotus Symphony is free: just create an IBM account and you can download it from the Lotus Symphony website.

Lotus Symphony
Lotus Symphony contains three applications and works via a tabbed interface.
(Screenshot by Alex Serpo/ZDNet Australia)

Lotus Symphony 3.0 was released in October 2010. Unlike OpenOffice, Lotus Symphony only has three: Documents, Spreadsheets and Presentations. The suite doesn't contain an email client, as IBM is hoping that in exchange for a free copy of Symphony, you might consider buying Lotus Notes.

Unlike Zoho, which is a web-based application made to look like a desktop application, Lotus Symphony is a desktop application made to look like a web application. You'll notice this as soon as you open the program. The suite works via a tabbed interface and even includes a web browser. It's a little quirky, but once you get used to it, it's a quick and easy-to-use interface.

Like OpenOffice, Lotus Symphony includes a quick-start component, which by default becomes part of your start-up applications. While this chews a little of your available memory, nobody really has a shortage these days, so it a nice way to get Symphony running in a snap.

Symphony's OpenOffice heritage becomes clear once you use each of the applications. However, each application is modified enough that you're still going to have to acclimatise. Before you start, you might want to have a look at the great range of templates available for all three applications, or alternatively some of the third-party plug-ins.

Lotus Symphony
A great range of third-party add-ons and templates are available.
(Screenshot by Alex Serpo/ZDNet Australia)

Jumping into Documents, you'll find a great range of formatting and document customisations, including a range of quirky little features that Microsoft Word users may have never used before. However, they'll also find some omissions — most notably, the absence of a grammar checker and thesaurus.

Spreadsheet is similarly well featured. It contains a huge range of functions and a solid set of graph and chart-making tools. While the number of charts available is limited, charts and graphs are highly customisable. It's also nice to see that Symphony includes its own version of pivot tables, called "DataPilot".

Presentations gives everything that most users will need, including an enormous range of clip art and themes. We're pleased to see that Presentations includes the ability to add animations along with the embedding of sound and video files.

Finally, a feature worth mentioning is the ability to insert "Object Linking and Embedding", or OLE, objects. These objects allow you to paste snippets of one document into another. For example, you can embed a spreadsheet within a document without having to copy, paste, crop or re-save.

Lotus Symphony
Symphony gives you a no-fuss way to embed one document into another.
(Screenshot by Alex Serpo/ZDNet Australia)

Like OpenOffice, Lotus Symphony saves documents in the ODF standard as default. Symphony did a reasonable job of converting our Microsoft Office 2003 and OOXML documents, and it gets additional points for warning us that "some formatting may not display correctly".

Support for Lotus Symphony comes via an online forum. While comprehensive, it appears to be the only avenue for support inquiries — we couldn't find any references to telephone or email support. This is unsurprising, as there is no premium or paid version of Symphony. Despite the lack of direct support, there is great volume of documentation available to users willing to dig a little.

In terms of value, we'd hate to be the sales and marketing people for Lotus Symphony. On one hand, you're offering a well-featured office suite that you're giving away for free. On the other hand, OpenOffice is half a dozen clicks away and offers more. Meanwhile, both Google and Zoho are throwing their newfangled cloud-based applications at anyone who walks past. It's amazing how hard it is to give away software these days.

Despite this, Lotus Symphony is a solid offering and definitely worth a try. Businesses with an existing relationship with IBM may be able to gain financial advantage by combining Symphony with Lotus Notes/Lotus Domino or other IBM offerings. For everyone else, you'll likely get more from OpenOffice 3.3.0.

The good

  • Free
  • Well featured
  • Interesting unique features
  • Great templates and third-party plug-ins
  • Broad OS support
  • Supports ODF and OOXML documents
  • Lots of support documentation available

The bad

  • OOXML conversions not always perfect
  • No email client
  • No database program

The bottom line

Lotus Symphony is a solid offering and definitely worth a try, but if you're after a free office suite you'll probably get more from OpenOffice.

Editors' rating: 7.5/10Price: Free


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Topics: Google, IBM, Microsoft

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4 comments
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  • For small businesses, it's important to consider integration as well when taking on new systems.

    Most small businesses need to manage customer relationships, projects/tasks, and invoicing/finances somehow. We originally took on 3 different apps to cover all of our ends, and these were great apps - but the lack of integration was far too inefficient and discouraging. It's important to consider something that integrates all of what your business needs, not just one aspect of it.

    We are now currently using WORKetc, as it integrates CRM, projects, billing, support, and time tracking tools into one system, and we require no additional integrations (though, they do integrate with Google apps now!). And we are able to manage the entire client lifecycle in one system, instead of spreading it out through 4 non-integrated apps.
    DavidMorisseau
  • Be aware that OOXML being an ISO standard doesn't make it ubiquitous. OOXML was opposed by many on grounds it was unneeded, as software makers could use OpenDocument Format (ODF), a less complicated office software format that was already an international standard, and is the native format of Open Office and other suites.

    IBM (which supports the ODF format) threatened to leave standards bodies that it said allow dominant corporations like Microsoft to wield undue influence. Microsoft was accused of co-opting the standardization process by leaning on countries to ensure that it got enough votes at the ISO for Office Open XML to pass. After all that, ironically the Strict variant of the standard is not yet fully supported by Microsoft Office. Office 2010 provides read support for ECMA-376, read/write support for ISO/IEC 29500 Transitional, and read support for ISO/IEC 29500 Strict. Microsoft have stated that the next release of Microsoft Office (version 15) will support both read and write of ISO/IEC 29500 Strict.

    If using a ubiquitous standard format is important to you, I'd recommend ODF as the best option, portability using OOXML is quite limited from practical experience.
    PeterFarmer
  • I wouldnt classify the lack of an email client for iWorks as "bad" . It doesnt need to include one - OS X comes standard with a solid e-mail client built in. Rather I would be giving Microsoft a tick in the bad column for expecting people to pay for an e-mail client ( as part of Office ) that integrates well with other apps.
    PeterFarmer
  • The hub of any office system is its communications suite, ie, e-mail, calendar/diary, contact list, and task list. I can't see how anyone can operate these days without these. The other tools you have assessed, ie, Word, Excel and Powerpoint equivalents are the key apps for creating office products, but are virtually pointless if you don't a contact list of people and clients to send them too, a tool to do the actual comms, and diary and task list to make sure they get created and discussed.
    ploring