IBM launches Lotus Symphony 3 beta; Office alternatives pile up

IBM rolled out the beta of Lotus Symphony 3.0, its free office productivity suite built on the OpenOffice.org code base.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

IBM on Thursday rolled out the beta of Lotus Symphony 3.0, its free office productivity suite built on the OpenOffice.org code base.

The company launched Lotus Symphony as a free alternative in 2007. From that beta, IBM took Symphony to a general release in 2008. Jeannette Barlow, Symphony's product manager, called the latest release of IBM's free office suite "the most significant investment and enhancement from that original delivery."

Barlow added that Symphony 3.0, which is a jump from the previous Symphony 1.3, reflects customer input from both enterprises and small businesses that participated in the IBM Lotus Foundations appliances.

Among the features in Symphony 3.0:

  • Visual Basic Macros support;
  • ODF 1.2 support improves file interoperability;
  • Embedded audio/video allows users to add media directly to slides, documents and sheets;
  • Autotext;
  • Digital signatures;
  • Redlines support;
  • Usability enhancements.

The big question here is whether any of these upgrades will get folks to try free or alternatives to Microsoft Office. The good news for the market is that between IBM, OpenOffice and Google Apps there's healthy competition for enterprise buyers to segment users. Light users may get a free suite while power Excel jockeys keep Microsoft Office.

Kevin Cavanaugh, vice president of messaging and collaboration at IBM, says the more customers are doing side-by-side implementations of free alternatives and Microsoft Office and cutting licenses where appropriate.

The challenge for alternatives to Office is clear: Break customer inertia. We all know the potential ROI case. Alternatives are largely free vs. paying Microsoft for Office. However, customers generally like Office and have no tolerance for that PowerPoint document that may not be formatted correctly with an alternative.

I plan on giving Symphony a whirl along with Google Docs, Zoho and other alternatives. In reality, I use a little bit of everything today. I'm probably a Google Docs-Office hybrid in practice with the once-in-a-while detour to Zoho.

But I'm stepping up on the evaluation of alternatives. I'm in the market for a laptop and pondering whether I need to get Microsoft Office loaded on it. On paper, it's a simple decision---go elsewhere. But I'm one of those users that will throw a laptop through a window if there's a formatting issue to deal with. I know the interoperability is 99.5 percent there for the most part, but as a user that 0.5 can drive me nuts. I'm also more comfortable with a desktop client or hybrid approach than a pure cloud suite.

I'll report back on my alternatives to Office adventures.

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