Small-Business Software

Streamline your business tasks by using these bestselling programs.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the May 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Streamline your business tasks by using these bestselling programs.

Once the domain of only large companies, software that takes care of business needs has become a mainstay for small businesses. Thanks to constantly updated and improved software packages, today's small-business owner can efficiently complete such tasks as making computerized sales projections, running inventory reports, creating mailing lists, and developing professional newsletters--all without leaving his office.

To choose the right software for your business, first determine exactly what you need your computer to do, both now and in the not-too-distant future. Do you need a program that will help you keep track of your current and prospective clients, generate invoices, and create mailing labels, as well as provide a way to track your financials? Is a standard word processing program sufficient? Or will you also need desktop publishing capabilities?

Other questions to consider when you go to buy a program include the following:

1) Do you need an office suite, or will a single software program dothe trick? Suites are a group of real programs--such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel--that are packaged together and work as a unit. "With an office suite, which includes several software programs in one package, you get a level of integration that you don't get from buying separate bits," says Linda Mitchell, group product manager for small-business marketing in the desktop-applications division for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. "Not only does an office suite localize all programs in one, it's usually less expensive to buy a suite than the products individually."

2) Will the software be able to run on your computer? Make sure your current computer is powerful enough to effectively run the program you are considering. Most software programs clearly state their minimum system requirements on their packaging.

3) How easy is the software product to use? "A high-quality software program is intuitive and adapts to you," says Mitchell. "What you must do to reach a desired result should be clear. This is especially important for the small-business owner, who is usually working alone and doesn't have a resident expert on call to answer computer questions."

It is important that the program is user-friendly and doesn't require you to speak "Computerese."

Good software programs also come with onscreen tutorials, CD-ROM training courses, and ready-to-use templates or onscreen examples of common business reports and forms.

4) Is the new software compatible with your existing programs? For instance, if you are buying mailing-list software, will it work with your word processor? If you have to re-enter information, consider purchasing a different software--one that links with your current programs.

Choosing The Right Program

Do your homework. "Talk to people in your industry to see what they use and how they like it," advises Mitchell. Try out the software at the store, or get a demo disk from the company and experiment with it.

The following are descriptions of some of the bestselling software programs on the market today in the categories of databases, spreadsheets, word processing, and all-encompassing office suites. The programs were suggested by well-known computer retailer Comp USA and Ingram Micro, the nation's largest computer wholesaler.

Note: Windows 95 and Macintosh versions of the same software titles offer different capabilities, options, system requirements, and pricing. Ask your local software dealer for information on which applications are available for your operating system.

Software Programs

  • Database programs keep track of current and prospective customers, generate invoices, create mailing labels, maintain personnel records, prepare expense reports, and store a variety of data for easy reference.

  • Spreadsheet programs enable effective financial planning, expense tracking, forecasting and budgeting. They allow for the computation of numerical and statistical information, as well as the ready preparation of graphs and charts.

  • Word processing programs enable the creation of documents in all shapes and sizes, and contain state-of-the-art spelling checkers, grammar checkers and thesauri. Many now come with full Internet connectivity.

  • Office suites give you the advantage of having several major software programs combined into one package. Suites usually contain a word processing program, spreadsheet and accounting programs, as well as many added features, such as desktop-publishing capabilities and information managers.

Database Software

Microsoft Access 97 for Microsoft Windows 95/NT 3.51

Overview: This database program stores a variety of information which can be readily accessed. It tracks the status of projects and updates them as you input information. New features make creating databases easier and less time-consuming. The Database Wizard automatically builds more than 20 types of custom databases. The Simple Query Wizard finds answers to questions, regardless of how data is structured. Other time-savers include the Performance Analyzer Wizard, which automatically recommends the best way to speed up database applications. This program also converts data into Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), so users can create interactive database pages for a company intranet (a network that allows workers within a company to interact with a repository of company data) or for the World Wide Web.

Minimum IBM-Compatible System Requirements: 12MB RAM for use on Windows 95; 16MB RAM for use on Windows NT Workstation; 28MB to 60MB hard-disk space required; 40MB required for typical installation, depending on configuration.

Suggested Retail Price: $339 for new users for CD-ROM; $109 for upgrade.

Lotus Approach 97 for Windows 95/NT

Overview: This relational database (a database that stores information in relation to other information) provides an easy way to query, analyze and report on data. This program allows the user to create a central repository of information (such as customer mailing lists and billing information) that can be exported into other programs (such as word processing), so that form letters can be generated. SmartMasters provide templates of precreated databases. The user can track, manage and analyze business information, regardless of where the data is stored, providing seamless connectivity to all popular database formats. This program allows users to save a document as HTML and post it onto a Web site, without having to learn the language. Default forms and worksheets are created automatically. The Action Bar provides quick access to the commands most frequently used. PowerClick Reportwriter generates professional reports easily, showing how data will appear before printing.

Minimum IBM-Compatible System Requirements: At least 8MB RAM for Windows 95, 12 recommended; 16MB RAM for NT; 18MB hard-disk space minimum for installation.

Suggested Retail Price: $105 for new users or upgrade. Available on CD-ROM or diskettes.

Spreadsheet Software

Microsoft Excel 97 for Windows 95/NT 3.51 (Macintosh version also available)

Overview: This new program is designed to make spreadsheets useful for a wider variety of tasks, allowing the user to compute just about anything, especially data that lends itself to a grid format (such as inventory, sales projections, and expenses). It also performs charting, analysis and data management, and is able to incorporate information from online sources. Multiple Level Undo provides the freedom to experiment by allowing multiple actions to be undone. The natural language formulas enable users to write equations using everyday terminology. Drag-and-drop page breaks make repaginating and redefining print areas easy. This program also makes working in a connected environment possible. Shared workbooks allow multiple users access to the same document simultaneously.

Minimum IBM-Compatible System Requirements: 8MB RAM for Windows 95; 16MB RAM for Windows NT; 22MB to 64MB of hard-disk space; typical installation requires 36MB.

Suggested Retail Price: $339 for new users; $109 to upgrade from a previous version or a competitive product. Available on CD-ROM or high-density diskettes.

Lotus 1-2-3 97 Edition for Windows 95/NT 4.0

Overview: Designed to crunch numbers and keep track of everything from payroll to mailing lists, this new 32-bit program enables users to find, publish and share information across the Internet and within company intranets. Users can collaborate with colleagues and bring in information from a wide range of sources. Key features include 1-2-3 AutoTotal, which enables the user to add a series of numbers by typing the word "total." Dynamic Print Preview lets users simultaneously edit and preview their worksheets. The user can instantly see the effects of changes made to worksheets before printing. And Outlining gives the user the option to quickly summarize worksheet data into outline format, producing a concise, visual, top-line summary of the work.

Minimum IBM-Compatible System Requirements: Minimum of 8MB RAM required (12MB when running more than one application). Minimum of 16MB RAM required for Windows NT 4.0. 486 50Mhz or higher. Microsoft Windows-compatible video adapter (VGA or higher resolution) and monitor.

Suggested Retail Price: $329 for new users; $105 to upgrade from a previous version or a competitive product.

Word Processing Software

Microsoft Word 97 for Windows 95/NT 3.51 (Macintosh version also available)

Overview: This new version of Word assists in the preparation of e-mail and documents for the Internet. Users are able to save their documents as either Microsoft Word or HTML files. A WordMail feature allows users to use Word as their e-mail editor. On-The-Fly spell checking and grammar checking allows you to deal with errors immediately or later. Document Map view provides an outline of the document on the left-hand side of your screen. Hyperlinks allow connection to other office files. Letter Wizard automatically suggests layouts and styles for letters, structures the layout, and inserts dates and addresses. AutoSummarize analyzes the contents of any document and creates a summary of key information.

Minimum System Requirements: 8MB RAM for use on Windows 95; 16MB RAM for use on Windows NT; an additional 8MB RAM required to run WordMail; 20MB to 60MB of hard-disk space required; 46MB required for typical installation, depending on configuration.

Suggested Retail Price: $339 for new users; $84.95 to upgrade from a previous version or a competitive product. Available on CD-ROM or high-density diskettes.

Corel WordPerfect for Macintosh (IBM-compatible versions also available)

Overview: Corel WordPerfect for Macintosh has a variety of features such as tables, multiple format columns, an integrated grammar checker, spell checker and thesaurus, which are all easy to find and use. Time-saving features include QuickCorrect, which automatically corrects typographical errors. The program also includes innovative new additions such as Internet publishing tools, which enable you to import HTML documents from the Internet into Corel WordPerfect for editing. Or, you can create your own HTML documents in Corel WordPerfect 3.5 to publish on the Internet, and have the HTML code translated for you. This program also has a Make It Fit feature, which automatically fits documents into the number of printed pages you specify.

Minimum Macintosh/Power Macintosh System Requirements: 2MB RAM for Macintosh; 5MB RAM for Power Macintosh; 6MB of hard-disk space for minimum installation; 16MB hard-disk space for standard installation; system 7.0 or higher.

Suggested Retail Price: $249 for new users; $89 to upgrade from a previous version or a competitive product.

Office Suites

Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition for Windows 95/NT 3.51

Overview: This new integrated-productivity suite contains a number of programs used by the average small-business owner. Programs include Microsoft Word 97; Microsoft Excel 97; Microsoft Publisher 97, a desktop-publishing program; Outlook 97, a desktop-information manager, which tightly integrates e-mail, contact management and task lists, calendar, documents and files; Small Business Financial Manager 97; a journal feature which allows you to look back and see what you did on particular days; and the new Automap Streets Plus, which is a street-level mapping program. Added features include Internet tools, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer, and free time on the Microsoft Network. The new Publisher 97 Web Site Wizard makes it easy to create eye-catching Web sites.

Minimum IBM-Compatible System Requirements: 8MB RAM for Windows 95; 16MB RAM for Windows NT; additional 8MB required for WordMail; more memory may be required to run multiple applications simultaneously.

Suggested Retail Price: $499 for new users; upgrade $249. Available on CD-ROM.

Corel Office Professional 7 for Windows 95

Overview: This office suite includes the word processing program Corel WordPerfect 7; the database program, Corel Quattro Pro 7; Corel Presentations 7; and Envoy 7, an electronic-document publisher. This is the first office suite that allows you to publish in the Java Language using Corel Barista technology, which enables you to publish all of your existing files, exactly as they appear, on the World Wide Web. The program provides full connectivity in all core applications. You can also ask questions in your own words with the Ask the Perfect Expert feature. Other added features include CorelDRAW, which allows you to create graphics, and CorelFLOW, which creates flowcharts as well as technical diagrams.

Minimum IBM-Compatible System Requirements: 8MB RAM, with 16MB RAM recommended; 53MB of hard-disk space required for installation; typical is 157MB; 9MB minimum required to install Paradox, a high-end relational database that is included with the suite. Double-speed CD-ROM drive. VGA Monitor.

Suggested Retail Price: $449 for new users; upgrade $229.

Julie Bawden Davis examined small-business credit cards in the January issue of Business Start-Ups.

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