Productivity Software

New office productivity software is met with mixed reviews.
John XenakisNovember 1, 1997

The three major vendors of office productivity suites–that is, integrated word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation graphics–have come up with major new 1997 versions. They are packed full–some say bloated– with hundreds of advanced features and even more sophisticated user interfaces. But before purchasing the new, jazzed up alternatives, companies should be aware of possible compatibility problems with older versions.

After years of development, all three suites have pretty much the same large collection of functions and features. Nevertheless, each of the applications suites has unique advantages.

Lotus SmartSuite 97 ($399) has the best collaborative applications, allowing multiple users to work on the same document or spreadsheet. Corel WordPerfect Suite 8 ($299) contains technology that makes it the best choice if you publish documents and spreadsheets on the Internet. Microsoft Office 97 ($599) is more tightly integrated, both among applications and with the operating system, making it easier to use than the other two packages. Whether this feature justifies its higher price is a decision only you can make.

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Microsoft’s main advantage, however, is its enormous installed base. International Data Corp. (IDC) estimates that Microsoft accounts for more than 80 percent of the office suites in the country. If you expect to have to share documents or spreadsheets with a client or vendor from another company, you’re better off with Microsoft Office, because the chances are they will have the same software. In fact, such a near-monopoly helps explain Microsoft’s higher product prices.

Generally, however, office suites should be chosen as part of an enterprise’s software strategy, according to Michael Pinckney, a research director at Gartner Group, in Seattle. “For example, if you use Lotus Notes, Lotus SmartSuite has the greatest affinity to Notes,” he says. “If you use Netscape, then any of the suites will work, but Corel’s suites are the most tightly integrated. If you use Microsoft Exchange for E-mail, you’re better off with Microsoft Office.”

Of course, most companies follow the Microsoft juggernaut. If they don’t, it’s often because they wish to maintain compatibility with the applications they’ve been using since the 1980s, specifically Lotus 1-2-3 as a spreadsheet and Word-Perfect as a word processor.

One such company is the Washington, D.C., law firm Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, which uses Corel’s WordPerfect Suite 8 because its word processor is WordPerfect. “WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS is still heavily used by all our clients in the federal government, including the Department of Justice and the SEC,” says Andy Knaster, applications analyst at the law firm. He is extremely pleased that the latest version of WordPerfect still supports backward compatibility with all previous versions. “Corel supports old users,” he says. “Microsoft doesn’t even think about that stuff.”

Such an oversight may be hindering sales of Microsoft’s newest office iteration, even though the company still claims the largest number of users. “Office 97 has been hit hard because of a backlash among its user base,” says Mary Wardley, manager of productivity applications at IDC. It seems Office 97’s high price, coupled with its incompatibility with previous versions of Microsoft Office, may have turned off many consumers. In addition, some two-thirds of corporate desktops are still running Windows 3.1, according to IDC, further underscoring compatibility issues and complicating companies’ purchasing decisions. Perhaps more important, though, most firms have vast numbers of PCs purchased before 1994 that can still turn out perfectly good documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.

The 1997 suites from all three vendors may be a little easier to use, and may have new features that writers or graphic designers will find beneficial. For many businesses, however, it is not worth thousands of dollars to upgrade hardware and software to use the 1997 suites.