Suites That Just Get Sweeter

New software bundles from Lotus, Microsoft, and Corel are smooth and Net-savvy

For about as long as there have been personal computers, word processors and spreadsheets have been their workhorse software. As these applications have grown from their crude beginnings to today's powerhouses, the main purpose has remained the creation of documents to be printed on paper.

Now, that's changing. With the explosion of E-mail, the World Wide Web, and corporate networks, the sharing of electronic documents has become a fact of daily business life. This is clear in the newest generation of office suites, the software bundles that let you create memos, crunch numbers, make slides for presentations, and so on. Microsoft Office 97, Lotus SmartSuite 97, and Corel Office Professional 7 come loaded with features that make it simple for folks with no expertise to turn out spiffy pages or slide shows for the Web or for corporate intranets. They have been updated, in part, to take full advantage of Windows 95 and NT.

ABRACADABRA! Corel Office, released last summer, led the way. It offers tools that allow you to turn WordPerfect documents and Quattro Pro spreadsheets into Web pages with the press of a button. It even preserves a good bit of the formatting features when the pages are translated into the sometimes quirky Hypertex Markup Language of the Web. And you can instantly turn any text into a link to a Web page. SmartSuite 97 retains an emphasis on sharing documents through Lotus' unique Notes network software, but the Lotus suite, too, is rich in Web features.

Until now, Microsoft Office, which has about 80% of the suite market, has used tacked-on "Internet assistant" programs to create Web documents. But Microsoft Corp. has embraced the Internet with a vengeance, and Office 97 has more than made up for lost time. All of its components can both prepare documents for the Web and extract information from the Internet. They are also tightly integrated with the Internet Explorer browser. If you open an Excel spreadsheet on the Web, it pops up in a fully functional Excel window in IE.

Tables have long been hard to set up in Word and really tough on Web pages. The new Word includes a "draw table" tool that lets you sketch the border of the table, draw horizontal and vertical lines to create rows and columns, and erase lines between cells to create headings. To anyone who has struggled with tables on the Web or an intranet, this is a near-miracle.

Microsoft uses a lot of artificial-intelligence techniques to automate Office 97 tasks. I'll look at this development more closely in a future column, but one trick is very handy for network documents. If someone types an E-mail or Web address, Word recognizes and converts it to a hypertext link. When you receive the document, you click on that Web address to launch a browser and go to the site. Click on the E-mail address, and your E-mail program opens with a pre-addressed message form.

On the whole, Office 97 struck me as the best of a very good lot and should be more than enough to keep Microsoft dominant in the market.

All of the Office programs got a thorough makeover, but the star may turn out to be a piece called Outlook. It combines a contact manager--much better than Schedule+, which it replaces--with an E-mail program that can manage messages from varied post offices, including the Net, Microsoft Exchange, and cc:Mail. If you use more than one E-mail service or if you frequently flip between your E-mail program and information manager, Outlook could really simplify your life.

TATTLETALE. Lotus SmartSuite has a much-improved 1-2-3 spreadsheet program and includes features that help collaboration among groups of workers. For example, it automatically tracks who made what change to a file and when. This makes SmartSuite particularly attractive to users of Notes, which is designed for group efforts.

Corel Office is less an integrated suite than a big bucket of software--three CD-ROMs' worth, including tons of art and a zillion fonts. But where Lotus and Microsoft have put great effort into giving all applications a seamless look and feel, Corel always reminds you that it's a collection from disparate sources. Its main appeal should be to fans of WordPerfect, which can only be purchased as part of a suite. (Macintosh versions of the Corel and Microsoft products are expected to be out later this year.)

These suites are all big and brawny and need a Pentium with at least 16 megabytes of memory for good performance. They offer solid improvements over predecessors. An upgrade will be worth the cost, especially if you're one of the growing population of Web-page authors.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.