In early November 2008 Lotus announced Symphony 1.2. The release includes support for the Ubuntu Linux operating system, some DataPilot table functions that provide summaries of spreadsheet data, and the Beta version of the Apple Mac support. I wrote about the initial release in 'Lotus Symphony 1 freely accessible to all'.
The Mac beta is the most interest to me as I now use an Apple Mac as my main production machine.
Although it is a beta it has all the functions of the production Windows version, except that it is English only. It is beta because the user interface has to be engineered specifically to make it a good Mac citizen and work in the same way as other Mac applications. IBM has put it out as a public beta because it is keen to get feedback to ensure that it really meets the requirements of the Mac fraternity. I have been using it for a few days and I have come across a few niggles that, if fixed, would improve my enjoyment when using the product but nothing so far that would stop me using the beta as a production environment until the real thing comes out in the first quarter of next year.
The first reason that any Mac user should look at Symphony is that it is a free download with no cost to individual users. Even though it is free it has the full backing of IBM because it is a part of a bigger product set that enterprise users can buy with full support. The user of the free download gets access to the forums which are monitored and moderated by IBM and, through these, can submit bugs and issues as well as submit queries and gets hints and tips from IBM and the Symphony community.
The main reason is the clean and clear user interface. Symphony runs in one window with multiple tabs. The single window supports text documents, spreadsheets and presentations.
To the right of the main window is the properties sidebar which changes its content depended on what I am doing; if I am creating text I have immediate access to fonts, effects and position, whereas if I am positioned on a graphic it includes size and wrap properties. As well as the properties sidebar I can have a Style type sidebar, I am a great believer in using styles to format and markup a document so having the list of styles immediately accessible is a boon.
Apple Macs tend to have very wide screens and I find that having a text window that goes right across the screen is too big and uncomfortable to read. I normally arrange for the text window to take up a half to two-thirds of the screen leaving some screen real-estate for the sidebars.
Symphony functions can be extended with plug-ins; my favourite at the moment is sidenote. It gives me a scratchpad area as an additional sidebar. I use this to keep notes for myself of topics I need to cover in the article (I have just remembered that I need to write about PDF export—it is now on my list and I can concentrate on my current thought of plug-ins). It also enables me to copy and paste interesting snippets from other documents (say a press release) and then paste or modify them to be included in my article. As the Symphony community grows the range of plug-ins will increase with contributions from IBM, donations from the community and commercial plug-ins.
As well as plug-ins the Symphony home page has a gallery which includes clip-art and templates all of which helps users to use Symphony productively.
In a related announcement IBM and Sun announced the ODF Toolkit Union. ODF (Open Document Format) is the native format for Symphony documents. The Toolkit will include ODF DOM API, parser and serializer which will enabler developers to integrate open documents into business applications. Functions could include reporting, scanning, customisation and collaboration.
Finally Symphony includes an export to PDF function. The good thing about this is that it automatically produces tagged PDF which is a prerequisite for creating accessible PDF. The exported PDF for simple documents is fully accessible whilst more complex documents may require some simple and easy touching up.
I would recommend that Mac users try the beta out and feedback any issues to Lotus. If we all do this, the production version, which is planned for 1Q 2009, should be a very attractive productivity tool.