Lotus Symphony is the office productivity suite embedded into Lotus Notes. Lotus Notes is a product that is bought in large numbers by many enterprises. This means that Symphony has the full engineering excellence—reliability, usability, support and maintenance—that we expect of any enterprise product, especially one from IBM.
The good news is that Lotus Symphony 1 is now available as an independent product that can be downloaded for free. This must make it an attractive option for anyone who needs a well engineered office product but does not want to pay a lot of money for it. Further because it is a brand new product and, as IBM has always been in the forefront of accessibility technology, you can be sure that it has been designed and tested with people with disabilities in mind.
Lotus Symphony 1 is a single product with three functions: Documents, Presentations and Spreadsheets. It supports the Open Document Formats (.odt, .odp, .ods etc) as well as Microsoft Office 2003 formats (e.g. .doc, .ppt and .xls). This first release is very much aimed at the casual and the task user and is not intended for users who are heavy users of macros or integration with existing products. The roadmap suggests that these power users will be supported during 2009. It is supported on Windows and Linux operating systems with Mac integrated support in 2009.
I have recently loaded up Symphony on my old XP machine and here are my early reactions:
- Download and installation was very straight forward.
- The initial screens are intuitive and easy to understand.
- The help is good because it starts with an introduction and common help topics. The second common help is about accessibility so a new user should become independent very quickly even if they have a disability.
- Two important short cut keys that I picked up immediately are ctrl + to get to the menus just like a standard windows program and shift+F6 which moves from the main edit area to the sidebar where I can do things like changing fonts. The important point is the accessibility information is easily accessible; this might seem obvious but it is certainly not true of all products I have looked at.
- When typing, auto-correct works very well but just as important is the addition of predictive text. This is really useful for me because 'accessibility' is a word I type a lot and very often misspell now I type 'acc' and the rest is done for me. This is a boon for me but a great accessibility tool for anyone who types slowly or with difficulty.
- Symphony includes an export to PDF function. It creates a reasonable pdf file including bookmarks for heading and alternate text for figures. It does not produce a pdf file that will reflow which is one of the requirements for accessibility; it would appear that there is scope for a plug in from a third party or an update in a subsequent release.
- On the web site there are a series of tours that really help people to understand the functions. These include closed captions for deaf users or people who do not want to use the sound on their machine. The only downside is that unless you left click on the tour you will not know it is there. A small description of the tours and how to use them would be useful.
Symphony is built with support for Iaccessible2 (IA2), the new interface for Assistive Technologies, and this means that it works with screen readers and screen magnifiers. IA2 has several extensions over the existing MSAA interface and so should provide a better user experience for screen reader users.
Given that Symphony is accessible, is well engineered, provides the functions that most people use and is free it seems an ideal product for a large proportion of users, especially anyone who is disabled and looking for an economic way of creating a full function home office.