Test Center review: Office killers pack some heat
Cloud-based Google Docs and Zoho, as well as desktop-bound IBM Lotus Symphony and OpenOffice.org, put Microsoft's productivity suite on noticeFollow @infoworld
Collaboration is handled through in-line comment balloons, bookmarks within documents, and the ability to share a given document among any number of users with Google accounts. The best news here is that collaborators don't have to share the same browser or even the same computing platform; a far-flung group consisting of Linux, Macintosh, and Windows users can all work together to create a finished document.
Google's spreadsheet is simultaneously the most frustrating and most powerful of the functions available in the suite. It's frustrating because it works so completely differently than a product like Excel. Take, for example, the process for adding a formula to a cell. Rather than editing it within the cell or in a formula bar over the spreadsheet pane, you click on a tab that takes you away from the editing window to a formula window. Once there, you can do many things, but in order to format the results, you have to click back to the edit tab.
The spreadsheet (screen image) is powerful because you can add plug-in functions to any spreadsheet. These plug-ins will let you display data in a number of creative ways, from power gauges to timelines to word clouds. Between the plug-ins and connections between the spreadsheet and various Google Web publishing tools, the Google spreadsheet may be the most powerful, easy-to-use tool for getting complex data published on the Web. On the collaboration side, there are revision-tracking tools that let everyone know who touched the spreadsheet and how, and spreadsheets can be exported to a number of different formats.
So is Google Docs ready to take over from Microsoft Office? Not in the current beta release. The fact is that there are just too many functions used in day-to-day office or academic work that aren't supported or are supported in a difficult-to-use fashion. Google Docs is great for collaborating across the Web, especially if the users are running a variety of different operating systems. For mainstream work, though, we'll have to look to other answers.
IBM Lotus Symphony
While IBM Lotus Symphony doesn't work within your regular browser, it would be wrong to say that it's not browser-based – the suite simply travels within its own browser. Once you get started, the suite looks familiar, especially if you've ever spent any time with Lotus Notes. Within the suite, you'll find the same sort of powerful functionality and a complete feature set that was always present within the Symphony suite, along with a user interface that is just different enough from Microsoft Office to make for some interesting hunting experiences as you're getting started.
It's possible that Symphony is the perfect word processor (screen image) for you if you need to create visually complex documents on a regular basis. If you need to frequently repeat the creation of those complex documents, the case gets even stronger. Symphony allows finer command, within a more obvious control set, of document elements than any word processor I've seen. This isn't new – I remember that my wife, when working for an engineering firm a decade ago, chose Symphony (or its predecessor) as the document preparation product for this very reason. Academic and research users will find solid footnote and cross-referencing tools, though the bibliography-creation tools aren't at the same level as the superb tools in Word 2007. If your needs tend more to technical documentation than the academic paper, then the word processor here could be right up your alley.
Symphony's spreadsheet (screen image) is based on the venerable Lotus 1-2-3. As such, it is a solid enterprise-class spreadsheet that operates as we expect spreadsheets to operate. I was able to open and save spreadsheets in various formats, and to import a number of Excel spreadsheets. While the spreadsheet doesn't have quite the number of formatting options available to the word processor, it is still possible to create complex spreadsheets with high levels of scripting and detailed formatting in the program. For users who need essential spreadsheet functions and don't depend on enterprise applications built on Excel macros, the Symphony spreadsheet could be an acceptable option.