Buyers' Guide: Sizing Up Office Suites

Seamless team software that boosts productivity.
BY WAYNE SCHULZ

Office suites are the hot new computer software application products. If you don't already use a suite, this article tells you why you should. If you do use or plan to buy one, this article will help you decide which is best for your needs.

What's all the fuss about office suites? First of all, they're fast, friendly, smart and powerful. And those who don't use one are working under a severe handicap.

Why, you may ask, should a CPA use a suite of applications rather than, say, Microsoft Word for word processing, Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheet work and Corel Paradox for a database?

An analogy explains it best: Pit a well-practiced football team made up of average players against a pick-up group of superior players. Odds are the pick-up team, despite their individual skills, will be defeated by the average players who have practiced together and worked out effective offensive and defensive strategies.

An office suite is like that well-practiced team-except in this case the individual applications are all superior products. A suite is a collection of applications engineered to work together, which is why it is called a suite. A typical suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, calendar and presentation software. While each component does a separate job, they all share many common working parts, which is what makes suites so powerful and user-friendly. The high-tech buzzword that describes that level of software cooperation is "seamless"-a word you will hear more about in the years to come as an increasing array of such products comes to market.

As the word implies, a seamless application has few barriers, or seams, between it and its other applications. And that means material from one-be it text, an array of numbers in a spreadsheet, a field in a database or a graphic from a presentation-can be copied and pasted into a file created in any other member of the suite family. In fact, not only can you easily copy and paste but in some cases data from one also can be edited and formatted by another application. For example, spreadsheet data can be imported into a word processor, where the data can be edited without destroying the formatting or the relationships among the numbers. The reverse also is true: related numbers originating in a word processor can be imported into a spreadsheet file and the numbers will maintain their relationship.

In addition, suite applications share many software tools. For example, if you "teach" the word processor to recognize the spelling of a name-such as Wayne Schulz-the spreadsheet application also will recognize it because both applications use the same dictionary. Graphics created in one application can be shared easily with others in the suite because they use the same graphics software. Some suite applications even share commands and have a common interface, making them easy to learn and use. Most suite users can be up and running within an hour of loading the software.

In this article, we look at the three major office suites: Corel Office 7, Lotus SmartSuite 97 and Microsoft Office 97. All three, designed to run on the Windows 95 or NT operating systems, have been upgraded recently. These upgrades added enhancements and lots of Internet polish to three already robust sets of applications. The latest versions also added or enhanced scheduling and calendar applications. Unlike Lotus, Corel and Microsoft sell several varieties of their suite packages. For example, the plain-vanilla version of Microsoft Office 97 omits Access, the database application; the Professional Office 97 package adds Access. For this article, we looked at the top-of-the-line packages, which contain all the applications; both Corel and Microsoft call their top office suite packages Professional versions.

Choosing a suite is a commitment not unlike marriage: It's relatively easy to get into the relationship, but getting out often raises problems because not all the competing suites "communicate" accurately with each other. For example, while all the word processors usually can open files created by competing vendors' programs, some of a file's formats may not be duplicated accurately.

There are even some compatibility problems between different versions of the same suite. For example, Microsoft's recent upgrade to Office 97 makes its applications more Internet friendly, but that step also made them incompatible with earlier version of the same applications. While the programs can translate forward-from the earlier to the latest format-they generally cannot translate in reverse, a process called backward compatibility. While this failure raises the hackles of many users, all the programs provide the ability to save files in the older format. In fact, it's possible to set such a default for saving files. Many Office 97 users are doing that as they wait for their colleagues and clients to upgrade. At most, it's a temporary inconvenience.

Here's a closer look at each suite:


COREL OFFICE 7
Overview . The Professional version of the Corel suite comprises WordPerfect (word processor), Quattro Pro (spreadsheet), Presentations ( presentation maker), InfoCentral (personal information manager) and Borland Paradox 7 (database). Corel's moderate pricing ($449 for new users, $229 for upgrades) almost certainly will position it for the home and small business market. The vendor claims it outsells Microsoft and Lotus at retail outlets. However, Microsoft remains the leader in overall market share due to the large number of computers that come bundled with Microsoft Office.

Corel includes the most applications of the three suites. In addition to the core applications mentioned above, the Professional version includes Corel Flow (for making flowcharts), Corel Draw (for drawing), Corel Screen Saver, Starfish Sidekick (a calendar and personal information manager) and Dashboard (a taskbar for controlling all the applications), Timeline (a project manager) and Corel A to Z (a dictionary and encyclopedia)-as well as a slew of additional typefaces (fonts), graphics and photo clips.

To run the software, Corel claims you need at least a 486 computer running at 25 megahertz (MHz) with 8 megabytes (Mb) of random access memory (RAM). However, with such a low-power computer you'll be working in slow motion. (For more on computer power needs, see the sidebar, "Get in Shape Before Tackling an Office Suite" ). In addition, your computer must use either Microsoft Windows 95 or NT and have about 115 Mb of hard-disk space, depending on how many of the extra applications you load; if all are loaded, you'll need 220 Mb. You also will need a CD-ROM player to install the applications and make use of the online manuals.

Among the most significant enhancements to the Corel suite are the conversion of all applications to 32-bit programming for faster and more stable performance and the ability to use long descriptive file names throughout (as long as 255 letters) and to convert WordPerfect, Quattro Pro and Presentation to and from Internet documents.

Technical support and information on the Corel products are available via the World Wide Web at: http://www.corel.com and via a public news server at cnews.corel.com.

Pros . WordPerfect is a longtime favorite of CPA firms and a significant number of users are still using early DOS versions. The Windows version of WordPerfect retains many DOS features and adds all the benefits of working in the Windows environment. However, beginning with Office 7, WordPerfect no longer is sold as a stand-alone product outside the suite.

One of the handy features that WordPerfect retains from earlier versions is the ability to reveal underlying document formatting codes (such as tab positions, bold face, type size). By comparison, checking a format in Microsoft Word or Lotus Word Pro is not as easy.

Creating tables in WordPerfect has always been a simple process. To add numbers in a column, all you do is click on the sum command and the totals are automatically inserted. Changing the way a table looks is easy with SpeedFormat, which allows you to choose from several template presentation styles.

Quattro Pro pioneered the tabbed worksheet and the ability to mouse click with the right button to change the properties of a cell. Both features have long since been incorporated into competing spreadsheets.

Paradox was one of the first popular databases and in its time was considered one of the most user-friendly. But as the competition gained, it got left behind. However, with the latest upgrade, especially with the addition of built-in electronic experts to assist in the setup of new databases, Paradox is once again a significant competitor. The querying and reporting ability of Paradox 7 remains powerful and simple to use.

Corel Presentations also has online electronic experts that help to create computer presentations. The suite ships with a large number of graphics that can supplement a slide show.

Cons . Like the other suites, Corel demands lots of hard-disk space. If you load most of its applications, it will take as much as 140 Mb of space and will need even more to take advantage of additional applications.

More than Lotus and Microsoft, the Corel suite seems to be a jumble of disparate applications-not all of which were designed to work efficiently together.

Corel borrowed the idea for online help experts from Microsoft, and now WordPerfect, Quattro Pro and Presentations all contain Perfect Expert help, which allows you to type questions in plain English and receive appropriate answers. Unfortunately, the Perfect Expert is somewhat less than perfect: Sometimes it feeds off the same underlying help engine no matter what application you are using. So, if you ask, "Tell me about HTML (hypertext markup language)" while in Quattro Pro, you may get advice about how to manipulate HTML in WordPerfect.

For the moment at least, Paradox contains its own electronic experts and doesn't share it with the other members of the suite. So, while it won't confuse you with answers applicable to another application, it does take up more hard-disk space. But that distinction may not last long; now that Corel has purchased rather than licensed the Paradox software from Borland, the Paradox expert help module probably will be merged into the suite's help module so users may eventually face the information confusion they encounter with other applications. Compared with the competing databases, Paradox also has the fewest number of example databases.

Quattro Pro lacks the handy format painter function contained in both Excel and Lotus. The format painter allows for quick copying of formats such as font size and style from one block of text to another.

Corel is the only suite without an e-mail or groupware offering. The package contains a license-but no software-for one client user on Novell Groupwise. In contrast, Lotus offers Notes and Microsoft has the new Outlook software.

The product's major drawback is its relatively small market share-making sharing of files with those using a different application less convenient. In addition, it does not appear to be successful in the business office market.

Get in Shape Before Tackling an Office Suite

Just as you shouldn't plunge into downhill skiing before you're in proper shape, so you shouldn't try to load any of the office suite products mentioned in this article until you get your computer in shape.

Since all the suites are formatted with the new 32-bit programming, you will need either Windows 95 or Windows NT as the operating system to run them. Windows 3.x or DOS just won't do. However, switching to Windows 95 or NT is not painful since both can run old DOS and Windows 3.x applications.

In addition, these powerful suites need plenty of random-access memory (RAM) to operate effectively-and the more they have, the faster and better they run. While the vendors say they will run adequately with 8 Mb of RAM, you'll do better with 16 Mb, and even better yet with 32 Mb; if you're a power user, you'll do best with at least 64 Mb. Ignore vendors' claims of being able to run their applications on a slow 486 computer: The suites will run-but very slowly.

The suites are space hogs, too. Microsoft Office 97 is the most demanding, taking a maximum of 190 Mb of hard-disk space. However, it can be loaded to save space, taking as little as 120 Mb, but with that setup some of the useful tools will be missing. Corel needs approximately 150 Mb and Lotus needs about 115 Mb. Plan your disk space accordingly.

When Windows 95 was released, Microsoft took the office suite lead by immediately releasing a 32-bit upgrade of the entire office suite.


LOTUS SMARTSUITE 97
Overview . This suite includes upgraded versions of Lotus 1-2-3 (spreadsheet), WordPro (word processor), Approach (database), Freelance Graphics (presentations), Organizer (a calendar and personal information module), ScreenCam (a program that can copy keyboard and mouse steps and then be used as a teaching tool) and SmartCenter (a file manager and command center).

The vendor says the suite needs the following minimum hardware: 486, 50 MHz, Windows 95 or NT 4.0, 8 Mb of RAM for Windows 95 (12 Mb recommended) and 16 Mb of RAM for NT (32 Mb recommended). If you load only the core applications, you can get away with 64 Mb of hard-disk space, but a full setup needs at least 115 Mb.

The suite's most innovative feature is the Lotus SmartCenter launcher, a customizable command center first introduced with SmartSuite 96. A few mouse clicks takes you to your calendar, phone book, Internet news and any of the SmartSuite applications. While both Microsoft and Corel have similar launchers for their suites, the SmartCenter is the most comprehensive and works closely and conveniently with the Lotus Organizer information manager.

Technical support for all Lotus products is available on the Internet at: http://www.lotus.com . Instead of offering support through newsgroups, Lotus distributes the support via a Lotus Notes Server (Domino) on the Internet. As is standard with all the suites, online Internet help is always available via the pull-down help menu.

Pros . The Team Review and Team Mail features included in each of the Lotus applications are helpful for large organizations that need to circulate copies of files (spreadsheets, presentations, databases or documents) via e-mail for review and modification. Users can save files directly to Lotus Notes, the collaborative software, which must be purchased separately.

Although a new common macro language, called LotusScript, has been added and is now used across all SmartSuite applications, longtime users of 1-2-3 for DOS will feel comfortable in the new Lotus because they can use the older DOS macros.

The 32-bit version of 1-2-3 has a unique print preview feature that allows simultaneous previewing and editing of a document. Both Excel and Quattro Pro force you to switch from the preview to the edit mode if you want to make a change in a file. Another new 1-2-3 feature is the ability to auto sum a range of numbers when you type the command TOTAL.

The new version of the WordPro word processor operates faster than its earlier version even with limited RAM. It also is more effective at opening documents prepared by other word processors. In addition, documents can be opened and saved to and from the Internet document language.

Freelance Graphics has been enhanced with 14 new presentation styles, bringing the total to 134.

Organizer, the personal information manager, is so well designed you won't need to read the manual to use it. With Organizer, you can track appointments, phone numbers, to-do lists and anniversaries.

With Approach, the database, users can access Lotus Notes databases and Team Mail and Notes Flow for sharing data.

As with all the suites reviewed, Lotus Smartsuite integrates well with the Internet. Each application can save and retrieve files from the Net, and most documents can be published to the World Wide Web.

Cons . Although the suite is designed to work with Lotus Notes, the application does not come bundled with the package: If you want it, you have to buy it separately.


Using the Internet for Productivity

All the suites reviewed here offer an ability to publish documents to the Internet. But is that really a way to boost your productivity?

The short answer is yes. The suites will let you not only publish to the Net but they also will save Internet documents to your computer. Spreadsheets have an ability to update financial information such as stock quotes directly from the Internet.

If your company or accounting firm needs a simple Internet Web page, you can prepare one easily with any of the suites; there is no need to buy a sophisticated HTML editor.

Other areas where you can benefit from the Internet:

  • Technical support . All the suites can connect you directly to their Internet support sites. This is an extremely handy and a long overdue feature. In the future, it's likely that Internet support will become standard.
  • Software upgrades . If you've ever found it difficult to keep up with the latest enhancements to software, the Internet offers an elegant solution. All you need do is use the Internet to link to a vendor's site and electronically download minor enhancements. Expect to see the Internet become the dominant method of subscribing to and receiving software upgrades.
  • Electronic mail . All three suites contain an e-mail module that automatically downloads e-mail off the Internet and delivers it into your computer. By next year expect that function to be commonplace.


MICROSOFT OFFICE 97
Overview . The Microsoft suite has gained wide acceptance-mainly because the product comes preloaded on many new computers. When Windows 95 was released, Microsoft took the office suite lead by immediately releasing a 32-bit upgrade of the entire suite. It has since released its latest version, Office 97.

Included with the Professional version of Office 97 are upgraded versions of Word (word processor), Excel (spreadsheet), PowerPoint (presentation), Access (database) and a new e-mail, calendar and groupware tool called Outlook. The new suite makes its Internet connection even stronger. In addition, all the applications make greater use of shared programming code.

Technical support for Microsoft Office is online at: http://www.microsoft.com/office . An online news server also can be accessed at msnews.microsoft.com. Serious users of the Microsoft technology also should consider the monthly Technet subscription service. Each month subscribers receive a CD-ROM loaded with the latest Knowledgebase, which contains important technical information about Microsoft products.

Pros . All the Office 97 applications have been enhanced-especially their ability to read from and write to the Internet. Word can now create sophisticated Internet documents with animated text and background picture rendering. Word also has been enhanced with improved converters for reading WordPerfect and older Word documents.

The new Office Assistant lets users ask questions in plain English and receive helpful suggestions from a graphical online cartoon character (Albert Einstein, a paper clip, a cat) about how to perform tasks. An option allows it to pop up automatically when the user is struggling with a task. The ability of the application to recognize the questions posed has been greatly enhanced. Unlike the Corel suite, where the Perfect Assistant offers somewhat global help, the Microsoft helper tailors its aid to the individual module being worked on.

Because more than half the programming code is shared by all the applications, every program loads and runs faster than its earlier versions. In addition, much hard-disk space is saved and less RAM is consumed when working in multiple applications.

Bundled with the suite is Microsoft's Internet Explorer. One little-known feature of this browser (versions 3.0 or later) is its capability to browse not only on the Internet but also in Office 97 files: Users can open documents and view and edit them directly without having to open the application that created them.

Microsoft also has expanded its IntelliSense feature, the automatic spelling checker, so it is now available throughout all the applications of the suite. Word is even friendlier with the addition of automatic grammar checking. This feature, which can be turned off, places a wiggly green line under questionable phrases as you type and allows viewing of suggested corrections by right mouse clicking on the underlined phrase. Another new feature of Word is its ability to view a document map on the left side of the screen-an especially handy feature when working with long documents. The map shows a hyperlink outline of the major headings of the document you are viewing. By using this map, you can navigate quickly through the document.

Excel has been improved, too. Now users can share workbooks, simultaneously accessing the same document without receiving the "file already in use" message. Teams of users can even change formatting, edit formulas and add and delete cells, with each change recorded and linked to the person making it.

The suite integrates better with the Internet with the addition of Web Queries, which allows users to import data, such as stock quotes and currency exchange rates, directly from the Net into a spreadsheet. Such information can be refreshed continually.

The ability to have multiple levels of Undo and Redo is an advantage Word has always had, and now Excel shares that feature.

Excel now supports natural language formulas, which means it automatically picks up column and row headings and lets you to use those names instead of complex formulas without first defining a range. So instead of having to identify a column or row as, say, C12, it can be identified with its real name, such as Northwest Sales.

PowerPoint includes updated presentation templates, including 10 animated ones, and an improved help system that guides infrequent PowerPoint users through the process of creating new presentations. As with the other Microsoft applications, there is a built-in ability to publish slide shows directly to the Internet in HTML language.

When Access was first updated to the 32-bit environment two years ago, users complained it was slow; the new version of the database is 50% faster.

Cons . The new powerful Outlook e-mail and groupware software, which allows users to communicate with others in your office, is fairly complex and takes some time to learn. The Office Assistant online help can pop up at the wrong times, but fortunately it can be permanently silenced with a few mouse clicks.


WHICH SUITE IS BEST?
All three suites are excellent, so you won't make a mistake buying any of them. However, here are some of the issues you should resolve before making a final decision:

  • If you already use an earlier version of a suite, and you're reasonably satisfied with it, it's probably better to upgrade rather than switch to a different program. And if you use some of the standalone products, it makes sense to upgrade to the suite containing those products because your learning curve will be shorter.
  • If you have the time, consider testing a suite for a few days to gauge how you like it. Personal preference matters when choosing a suite. One person may like the "feel" of one product over another. While it's possible to judge these packages on technical grounds (measuring speed, degree of compatibility, number of applications), we choose not to take that route because the products are so similar and the real bottom line is how comfortable you are with the application.

But whatever you do, move to a suite. You'll find your work flows much more efficiently and effectively.


WAYNE SCHULZ CPA, is a senior consultant at the West Hartford Connecticut firm of Kostin Ruffkess & Co. He is a member of the Connecticut Society of CPAs computer user committee and Internet committee. His e-mail address is weschulz@ix.netcom.com.

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