IBM Lotus Symphony – integrated office suite with some unique features

I normally wouldn’t review software on the verge of being orphaned but IBM Lotus Symphony is still worth considering. It is free and works on Linux, Windows and Mac. And, as you would expect with IBM, it is polished and stable.

Notably, Symphony is one integrated, multi-function program as opposed to a bunch of programs thrown together. Symphony has never crashed on me (great!) but if it did , all the documents would presumably go down at once (bad!). It’s strictly a personal preference  but I like the one-program approach.

Symphony back from the dead…

I used Lotus Symphony in the DOS days and was delighted when IBM brought it back about five years ago. It’s based on OpenOffice with a couple of innovations that make it worth considering. It is free software and I think IBM hoped to make their money off of support.   I suspect that IBM rightly perceived that companies are suspicious of open-source software and wanted the security of a big-name brand.

… only to be orphaned?
IBM quit development with version 3 in January 2012 and they released a service update at the end of last year. So, it’s still a fresh piece of software.

According to Wikipedia, IBM has given the project to Apache who will incorporate it in the long-overdue new version of OpenOffice. I hope they keep the main two features that make this product unique from LibreOffice – an integrated web browser and widgets.
This is a consideration if you chose to adopt Symphony. If the rocks stars at  Apache are smart (and they are!), you might be an early-adopter rather than an orphan.

The standard three modules integrated one tabbed interface.
As opposed to most suites, Symphony keeps you in one tabbed interface, whether you are doing word processing, presentations or spreadsheets. Unfortunately, thats all the productivity modules it offers. I wish it included the Draw module and I’m sure some business users would like a calendar/planner module.

The formatting controls are on the right side of the screen which takes advantage of the newer, wider desktop screens. On a laptop, it can be a little cramped. The formatting controls are smartly contextual and well organized – a problem with MS Office, in my opinion.

Integrated web browser

This is such a great feature that one wonders why every suite does not offer it. Many of us constantly use the web while we write, so it makes sense to bring the web into the word processor. Sadly, Symphony doesn’t support dragging content from the web tab into the word processor. This would be a great feature, if it did. You can still cut-and-paste.

Widgets – an easy way to customize Symphony

IBM offers only a few widgets but you can import Google Gadgets. This is huge since it gives Symphony many of the features of Google.

The most useful feature, for me, is that you can create a widget from an RSS feed. If a blog, calendar, newsletter, shared docs, etc generates an RSS feed (many do) you can create a widget from that feed and monitor it within Symphony while you write or work on your spreadsheet.

(Click here for my little rant on how how RSS could make your life simpler.)

This is a very useful feature that I hope the people at Apache keep in the next version of OpenOffice. This has potential to be a killer app.

The bottom line: a solid implementation of OpenOffice with a couple of innovative and useful features. But, you risk being orphaned.

Tool: IBM Lotus Symphony 3.0.1
Summary: customizable office suite with web integration.
Rating: very useful
License: open ethos (proprietary but free)
Alternatives: LibreOffice, Google Docs.

Digital Dewey — organize your digital collection like your physical library

The Digital Dewey Project 1.0

DigitalDeweyLogoThis project is a “zipped” collection of folders which mirrors the Dewey Decimal System as listed by Wikipedia. It has approximately 2500 folders and nested sub-folders, one for every major Dewey subject. Version 1.0 doesn’t go down to the decimal level but may in the future.

Users can unzip these folders on to their hard drive and organize their digital collection by dropping the documents in the appropriate folder.

The inspiration for this project happened when I was digitizing documents for a speciality library where scans of documents were simply dumped into one gigantic file folder. While this works fine if the documents are hyper-linked to an OPAC entry, it is almost useless for browsing. If a library were to use the Digital Dewey system, a user could browse through the digital collection similar to how they browse in a physical library. Be sure to set the file permissions to read-only.

Get the Zip File

ePub – open file format for eBooks

ePub is an eBook file format which allows text to be reflowed and resized to fit almost any screen or device.

In an era where your document might be read on a gigantic computer monitor or a tiny iPod, this is a huge advantage.

While ePubs can include graphics, it’s best for text-intensive files. While not good for graphic novels or an art book, it can handle just about anything you would create in Word or LibreOffice from a short poem to a full novel.  It would be a very good way to publish syllabus, for example.

Reading ePubs: ePub is an open standard and is the native file format for Nook and Sony Reader eBook readers. (Sadly, Kindle has its own format.) Other devices will need an ePub reader/app.  iPad users have iBooks which I haven’t used but seems cool. Google Play offers an app for Android users. On Windows and Linux, I use Calibre.

Creating ePubs: For creating files, Pages (OsX) and Abobe InDesign directly support ePub. Most users will need Calibre or Sigil to convert their word processor document to an ePub. It’s not difficult but it is an extra step. Sigil is my favorite. If you are a little geeky, ePub is form of XHTML and there are number of tools for that format.

I expect that ePub will be much better supported in the near future and will be an enduring file format. Google Books, Project Gutenberg and my local library use ePub. I suspect that many more will follow.


Tool: ePub
Description: a file format for eBooks
License: free and open-source.
Alternatives: PDF, .mobi (for kindle), HTML, RTF
Rating: very useful

Etherpad – collaborative note taking

EtherPad logo

Etherpad is a real-time, collaborative note taking tool.   It requires no sign-in or installation.
It’s a good example of less is more:  using your browser, you create a simple, temporary web page and send the link to your students.  They then join in writing.

In my experience, this can be a great time saver.  I recently attended an hour-long training session were we wasted fifteen minutes getting everybody logged into Google Docs.

Regarding the less: formatting is minimal, inactive pages are quickly deleted and there is no security.

The security issue is worth considering.  It is possible that a stranger could vandalize your lesson.  If you create a cryptic URL, it’s not likely, I think.  I used Etherpad for a study group in graduate school and, even after a 12 weeks, no outsider found our discussion.  If you create a page for a lesson or short unit, I think it is extremely unlikely that anyone would bother you.   Just be aware that this could happen.

If one of your own students vandalizes the page, there is a time slider to restore past versions.

Etherpad has the standard export options if you need a record of the class/session.   An inactive page gets deleted fairly quickly. (a good feature, IMHO.)  If you are creating a permanent on-line document, Google Docs or a wiki is a better tool.

Etherpad was acquired by Google and then released as open-source (thank you!), so there are a number of sites which offer it by other names and variations. The history is here.

Here are a few free sites using Etherpad software:

The source code is here although I’m not sure why a librairy would want to install their own – inside an intranet, maybe?

Tool: Etherpad
Description: on-the-fly, collaborative note taking
License: free and open-source.
Alternatives: Google Docs, wikis
Rating: very useful

Open Ethos software

I prefer open source tools but I’m also a pragmatist who sometimes uses propriety software, especially on my Windows computers..

Not all commercial companies are bad guys. I call these “Open Ethos” companies and recommended some of their programs in this blog. Open Ethos companies are for-profit and proprietary but they still have an open approach.

My definition of an Open Ethos product or service:

  • The company never copyrights or owns users’ data and documents. (With some obvious exceptions such as and Wikipedia)
  • User data can be easily exported to common formats for use in other programs.
  • A free, fully functioning, non-expiring, version of the software is offered (This can be a “light” version.)
  • Installing the software does not change computer settings, except as needed to run the program.
  • There is a reasonable privacy policy with no spyware, spamming or aggressive marketing.
  • Accounts can be easily and completely closed.

These are the main Open Ethos programs/services I regularly use:

ACID Xpress; Any Video Converter; Audiograbber, CutePDF, Google Docs/etc.; IrfanView; LastPass; PandaCloud; Skype; TextPad; VideoSpin; and WinAmp.

A few aren’t perfect on all points. I think a couple have an “opt out” box for letting Ask invade your browser, for example, which is very annoying if you forget to uncheck it. Open Ethos programs are by definition a compromise and you have to personally balance annoyances with the value of the software.

Tip 1: When installing Open Ethos software, do not mindlessly click through the installation process but read the screens and opt-out of any trial versions or optional “bonus features.”

Tip 2: Try to download the program from the original company’s site.  Often, third-party download sites add spyware to the programs they offer.   A good download site is No Nags which features Open Ethos software. 

FileZilla – move files on the Internet

Recommending FileZilla is like recommending the best best laundry detergent. It’s nothing to get excited about.

There are several other options but almost everybody I know uses FileZilla because it’s free and it works.

More importantly, you should learn how to use FTP. (File Transfer Protocol)

There are sites and programs that shield you from FTP but most are not open-source. FTP is how you move files on the Internet and it’s just a basic skill you should know.*

Knowing FTP opens up all kinds of open-source options. For example, knowing FTP let’s you use the very popular WordPress, which is what I’m using for this blog.

As for FileZilla — there is not much to say. It has two panes (your local computer and remote folder) and you drag files from one place to the other. The hardest part is getting the original address/password correct but once that is done, it can be stored in Filezilla and you won’t have to do it again.




Portable Windows

Description: allows you to move files between your local computer to somewhere on the Internet. Multi-platform.

License: GNU/GPL (open-source)

Alternatives: use your web-browser or the “remote folder” feature in your OS.

Rating: very useful


* This is a pet peeve of mine. I have friends and relatives who have spent years avoiding learning how to manage files on their computer. A couple hours of learning twenty years ago would have saved them endless frustration and lost files since then.

IrfanView – photo processor

There are a lot of photo editors on market, many of them open-source but I have yet to find one that does what IrfanView does so well — photo processing.

I call it processing because it doesn’t replace a full-feature editing program like GIMP (or Photoshop).

If, for example, you have 600 photos from your students that are all too big and a few too small — IrfanView can resize them with ease. The same for a bunch of photos that all are poorly exposed. Or a directory of photos that all need to be rotated. Or converted from GIF to JPEG.

IrfanView is also a very efficient file viewer where you can view a batch of photos and tweak them one-by-one. You could do this with Photoshop or GIMP but not as efficiently. It also works nicely for batch scanning.

IrfanView is not open-source but it is free for individuals. I include it here because I have not found an open-source program which replaces it.  If you decline to have the adware installed, it is as well-behaved as most open-source packages.

If your library is running Windows PCs, I consider it a must-install.

IrfanView is only for Windows but it runs fairly well in Linux using Wine (a Windows emulator). Reportedly, it can run on a Mac using a Windows emulator.


Portable version:
a photo processor for resizing, cropping, rotating, sharpening, batch-scanning, creating panoramas and much more. Many features can be done in batch mode.
free but not open-source.
many, notably GIMP.
very useful for Windows users

The LibreOffice challenge — learn it this summer!

LibreOffice WelcomescreenWhy not learn LibreOffice this summer? Install it on your laptop and learn it at the beach! If you have even a passing interest in the open-source world, this is the place to start. For educators, there is no better tool.

Once you have learned it, make LibreOffice files one of the formats you accept for assignments. It could be your first step to solving the chronic problem of students giving you files you can’t read.

LibreOffice is a split from OpenOffice because of some sort of dispute. You can think of it as essentially the same product but definitely install LibreOffice rather than OpenOffice which hasn’t been updated for awhile. This may change, of course. As far as I know, all the file formats are the same. Usefully, Google Docs imports/exports to LibreOffice file formats.

The components of LibreOffice are:


A word processor with similar functionality and file support to Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. It has extensive WYSIWYG word processing capabilities, but can also be used as a basic text editor.


A spreadsheet program, similar to Microsoft Excel or Lotus 1-2-3.


A presentation program resembling Microsoft PowerPoint. Presentations can be exported as SWF files, allowing them to be viewed on any computer with Adobe Flash installed.


A vector graphics editor and diagramming tool similar to Microsoft Visio and comparable in features to early versions of CorelDRAW. It also includes features similar to desktop publishing software such as Scribus and Microsoft Publisher.


A database management program, similar to Microsoft Access.


An application designed for creating and editing mathematical formulae. The application uses a variant of XML for creating formulas, as defined in the OpenDocument specification.

(From Wikipedia

I suggest you first learn “Writer” “Draw” and “Impress”. If you are a math teacher, you’ll surely want to learn “Math.”

I use Writer the most. (I’m using it right now.) Writer reminds me of Microsoft Word 95.

For class presentations I use Impress. Nobody seems to notice that I’m not using PowerPoint. I put my presentation on a thumb drive along with a portable version of LibreOffice. While other students often struggle getting their presentations to run, mine always go flawlessly

For desktop publishing I use “Draw.” It took me awhile to learn “Draw” but I can now do almost anything with “Draw” that I did with Microsoft Publisher.

I have yet to learn “Base”. I’ve tried! The learning curve is steep.

I use “Calc” as well, but not for teaching. Like Word, it seems like Excel from about ten years ago.

Seeming like a 10 year-old Microsoft Office is not a bad thing. If you are like me, I don’t need all the fancy menus and extra features of the current version of MS Office. I find the old-style menus more intuitive. If you are super power user, LibreOffice is probably not for you.



LibreOffice Portable for your flashdrive

Description: a free office suite available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Reads and writes to MS Office and Google Docs.

License: free, GNU

Alternatives: GoogleDocs (free but not open-source)

Rating: very useful