updated 05:35 pm EST, Fri November 7, 2008
Lotus Symphony 1.2 beta
For the longest time, the only real office suite for the Mac was Microsoft Office. While not a bad office suite, many people dislike the high retail price (although the home edition is far lower at $149 compared to $399 for the retail version). In addition, other Mac users simply object to using any product created by Microsoft. Apple's iWork is a less expensive option at $79 while the latest OpenOffice 3.0 is completely free. For yet another choice, take a look at IBM's Lotus Symphony 1.2 beta for the Mac.
Based on OpenOffice 3.0, IBM's free office suite also runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. While the Mac OS X version is currently in beta testing, IBM plans to release the final version in early 2009. Despite sharing the same code base as OpenOffice 3.0, this office suite offers slightly different features.
One main difference is the features available. OpenOffice 3.0 offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, database, and drawing program. IBM's office suite only focuses on a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. A second major difference is the way both office suites handle windows.
In OpenOffice 3.0, each new document appears in a separate window. The problem with this approach is that windows can appear scattered all over the screen and it's easy to get them mixed up with windows of other programs.
To keep everything organized, IBM's suite displays a single window. When you open additional files such as a word processing document or spreadsheet, each file appears in the same window with a separate tab. Such a tabbed interface, similar to those found in most browsers, makes it easy to keep everything neatly organized while allowing you to switch between your different files.
The program's user interface is also much less cluttered and cleaner than OpenOffice 3.0. The top of each tab displays a toolbar of icons with the menu bar at the top of the screen. Clicking on a different tab, such as from a word processing document to a spreadsheet file, changes both the toolbar icons and menu bar. To display additional commands, a palette appears on the right side of the screen. By default, this palette remains attached to your window, but you also have the option of dragging this palette to make it float on the screen.
Perhaps the greatest flaw with this office suite is its limited file format support. By default, you can choose the Open Document Format or the Microsoft Office format. However, this office suite only recognizes the older .doc or .xls file format of previous versions of Microsoft Office, but does not recognize or support the newest versions such as .docx or .xlsx, although it does support the file formats from the ancient Lotus SmartSuite office suite. Keep in mind that this program is still in beta, so the final shipping version may eventually support the new Office 2007/2008 file format.
Since Lotus Symphony will ultimately be free, you have nothing to lose by trying it in its beta form and then downloading and using its final version. Curiously, IBM chose not to incorporate the database or drawing functions of OpenOffice 3.0 into Lotus Symphony so if you need those functions, you should probably stick with OpenOffice 3.0.
If you need an office suite that comes with the massive financial and technical support of IBM behind it, Lotus Symphony is definitely a program to try. Its tabbed interface feels more efficient than the separate window approach of rival office suites, but its limited support for other file formats may give you a reason to use something else.