From XML to wireless, office suites move with the times

Enhanced basics and added features change the dynamics of office suites

Office suites are even more indispensable than paper at government agencies.

Probably 90 percent of every work task starts within an office suite and combines elements of e-mail, word processing, databases, graphics, spreadsheets, networking, instant messaging and presentations.

A bad choice of suite will hinder almost every task an employee performs.

I tested four leading office suites, grading them for quality, ease of use and price. I looked for applications that could interact with each another and, to a lesser extent, with programs that were not in suites.

When multiple versions of a suite were available, I chose the version with the most components not designed for specific users'for example, accountants or Web developers.

Microsoft Office, the king of office suites, has by far the largest market share. Office 11, originally due last month, won't arrive until August because of the large number of new features. Microsoft Corp. submitted a late beta version of Office 11 for this review.

The first thing I noticed was that Microsoft has continued to make all components look and act the same. Interfaces were nearly identical whether I was working in Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook or Access.

In addition, SharePoint Team Services made the suite an intuitive collaboration tool. For example, if I wanted to get a group together for a meeting, I could look at the calendars of those I planned to invite. Each of them could suggest various times that would appear on the others' schedules.

Office 11's biggest overhaul job was in Outlook. It has gone from a basic e-mail program to a virtual command center.

Outlook 2003 had various panes for tracking e-mail. In the largest window, a message appeared at letter size. When I highlighted a message in the smaller, inbox pane, it expanded into the main window, much like a preview. I could edit it at full size just as in Word.

No matter how poor the sender's formatting was, the main window spaced and indented the message as if it were printed on paper. I tested this function extensively, and nearly every time Outlook could make the message easier to read than my original.

Outlook also has gotten much smarter at prioritizing incoming messages. I could easily set up rules for different types of messages via quick flagging, which means moving selected e-mails to different folders on arrival. For example, I might file the boss's messages in a priority folder, and mail related to a months-distant event in another folder.

The more often I did this, the better Outlook got at automatically sorting mail by my preferences. I never lost a message no matter how it was sorted'Outlook always alerted me when something new arrived.

Excel and Access appeared much more closely related than before, largely because of Extensible Markup Language. Both apps used XML models called workbooks, which could easily be swapped back and forth with other XML data sources. In Access, especially, users should feel a lot freer to follow their own XML schemas rather than Access 2002's proprietary formats.

Word, the most-used program in the suite, has changed the least, but I saw some nice improvements. Most notable was Reading Layout Mode, which showed documents a bit larger than before and with shorter lines to make reading multipage documents easier.

Saved on CD, run from a tablet

PowerPoint also has more functionality. For example, a finished presentation could be saved directly to a CD-ROM, assuming there's a handy CD-recordable drive. PowerPoint also gained support for designing presentations on a desktop PC to run from a more portable tablet PC.

Overall, Office 11 represents a minor upgrade. The functions that changed since Office XP, especially XML compatibility and the integration of SharePoint Team software, were necessary. The rest was mostly cosmetic. Office remains the top suite for good reason: simple functions, tight integration and excellent business tools for users at all skill levels.

Corel WordPerfect Office 11, with mainstays WordPerfect 11, Quattro Pro 11, Presentations 11 and Paradox 10, has run a distant second to Microsoft Office 11 for some time. But since the early 1980s WordPerfect has retained many loyal government users, particularly in legal offices.

Corel Corp. even gave a nod to nostalgia with a special 'blue screen' mode that makes the program look exactly as it did in the 1980s. There were built-in WordPerfect 5.1 for MS-DOS keyboard shortcuts, which some users prefer to mice because they never have to lift a finger from the keyboard. If you long for simpler times, WordPerfect 11 delivers.

The WordPerfect file format has changed little since Version 6.1, so archived data is still compatible.

There was even a tool to convert older documents to XML format plus an XML editor that made using the converted work simple. Corel apparently has embraced XML even more thoroughly than Microsoft has.

Corel also stuck to its strengths. I could print documents with all their coding and save them in Adobe Portable Document Format without any additional steps. For the legal community, there's a wizard to draw up court pleadings.

Quattro Pro focused on using wireless devices effectively. For example, it could publish XML spreadsheets for use on wireless devices via a ZIM SMS text messaging utility.

No, it wouldn't be possible to peruse the federal budget on your wireless phone, but you could look at small spreadsheets or proofread key portions of large ones.

Presentations also embraced XML and had some nice extras such as an accurate spell-checker and storage of still images as PDFs. It could save storage space by converting audio files to the MP3 format, too.

The Paradox database manager didn't seem much different from earlier versions. It could still publish databases to the Web, and it has stayed compatible with Microsoft Access though it's more difficult to learn and use than Access.

Overall, WordPerfect Office 11 ran the gamut from the WordPerfect simplicity to Paradox complexity. It would be a good choice for offices with special needs, such as legal document production or pushing work out to wireless devices.

Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.8 would get the most-improved award if GCN were giving one. Lotus owner IBM Corp. wisely kept all the security and back-end features of earlier Lotus programs and just worked on improving the user interface.

Even so, the suite was harder to use than either Office 11 or WordPerfect Office 11.

Its great strength, from an administrator's viewpoint, is excellent security and manageability. The administrator can set up management protocols for all users, even triggering automatic resets if the server becomes unstable.

The administrator can direct e-mail to distribute itself to the intended users and copy itself to another file for archiving. The archived files can be automatically encrypted, too. This takes privacy away from users, but some agencies mandate saving all e-mail. Outgoing e-mail can be captured and archived as well.

The tough part from a user's standpoint is that the suite is designed for customizing. Users can direct mail to folders and configure the desktop appearance as they like. That's nice, but it requires a lot more preparation than for the other suites.

I found thousands of new features among the programs, but they were a bit of a hodgepodge and less well-integrated than in the other suites.

Nevertheless, Lotus' emphasis on security makes it a good choice for government users. If you need tight controls over your e-mail and a rock-solid back end, SmartSuite is for you
Sun Microsystems Inc. bills StarOffice 6 as the low-cost suite alternative. On price alone, there's no comparison'it's hundreds of dollars less than the other suites in this review. But quality is a part of value.

I found StarOffice completely functional though lacking many extras such as document sharing.
The drawbacks: no contact manager, scheduler or e-mail client. You could always use Microsoft Outlook Express for e-mail, but that would mean adding programs to the suite and eliminating the plug-and-play advantage.

The word processor, called Writer, was a Word lookalike right down to the movable task bar menus. It used XML as the default file format, so it should be compatible with Word and WordPerfect. But in testing, I found that many of the advanced features in Word and WordPerfect, such as tracking changes and revealing codes, did not transfer well to Writer.

The spreadsheet program, Calc, was excellent and adaptable to chart-making. Like Writer, it had access to a large supply of clip art to spruce up documents.

Impress, the presentation component, was unimpressive and had none of PowerPoint's flair.
Impress could convey information, but that was about it. StarOffice also had no standalone database program, though database functionality was integrated into the other programs.
If you need a basic office suite and have little to spend, StarOffice 6 can do the job. Just don't look for the extras that most users have come to expect from other office suites.

Cecil Wooley, a Virginia free-lance writer, has been a webmaster and network administrator and now develops custom database packages for enterprise clients.

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