IBM on Tuesday began offering a public beta version of a free new office productivity suite called Lotus Symphony to users of Linux and Windows PCs. The suite, which is actually based on the open source OpenOffice.org suite, though IBM does little to highlight that fact, is now the third major variant of this software, behind OpenOffice.org itself and Sun's StarOffice. All three suites champion the open source document standard OpenDocument in lieu of Microsoft's dominant Office formats, though they all work pretty well with Microsoft-created documents as well.
IBM first used the Symphony name for its Lotus-based office productivity suites over a decade ago. The new version of the suite has little in common with Lotus 1-2-3 and the other products Lotus offered back then, however, though it is dramatically more attractive and fine-tuned than either OpenOffice.org or StarOffice. The suite includes three components, a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentations package.
While it's unclear why the world needs yet another OpenOffice.org derivative, IBM's support of the suite and the OpenDocument is notable. The question, of course, is whether any free office productivity suite can ever eat into Microsoft Office's massive lead and feature set. Though OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and now the beta version of Lotus Symphony all offer basic functionality, they really don't do much to close the gap that has grown since Microsoft shipped its innovative--and, as it turns out, best-selling--Office 2007 suite.