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Over the past few years, one of the most popular ways of purchasing the major software applications-word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation graphics and contact manager-has been through software suites.
Originally, suites were simply a marketing tool by which vendors sold several "office" applications together for considerably less than the cost of the same applications bought separately. The problem with these early software bundles for Windows was that, unlike most
Macintosh software, the Windows-based packages didn't necessarily use the same interface or even work well together.
As time went on, vendors began to make their suites easier to use by modifying the user interface so all the packages worked similarly and by simplifying the document exchange procedure between packages.
Today, software suites are more advanced than ever. All the leading products have (or will be) coming out with versions to support the new Windows 95 operating environment. As a result, they're easier to use. The interfaces within each suite have become much more similar. And vendors are making it easier for workgroups to operate over a local area network (LAN).
Cheryl J. Goldberg is a former editor of PC Magazine and has reported on the computer industry for more than 13 years. Write to Cheryl J. Goldberg in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92714. You can also reach her through CompuServe at 70641,3632 or through MCI Mail at 367-2295.
There are three major players in the suite market: Microsoft, Lotus and Novell. Microsoft introduced its Microsoft Office last fall, about the same time it introduced Windows 95. This review looks at the full production version. Lotus introduced its SmartSuite 96 Edition last November; only a test version was available for review. Novell says its new suite will be available in the first quarter of 1996; it was unable to provide a review copy, so this column covers only Microsoft and Lotus.
Both these software suites are bundles of the companies' top-selling software packages. Microsoft Office Standard includes the Microsoft Word word processor, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program, the PowerPoint graphics program and Microsoft Schedule+ personal information manager; the Office Professional version includes all these plus the Microsoft Access database.
Lotus SmartSuite 96 Edition for Windows 95 includes the Word Pro word processor (the latest version of Ami Pro), Lotus 1-2-3, Freelance Graphics, the Approach database, Organizer personal information manager, and the ScreenCam multi- media tool. It also includes direct Internet access via America Online's Global Network Navigator.
Most of the packages in these suites have been reviewed individually throughout the past year in this column. This review will therefore look at the user interface and group computing features common to all the packages in the suites.
Ease Of Use
One of the advantages of the latest breed of office suites is they have a number of features that make their wholes greater than the sum of their individual applications. The biggest advantage is the across-the-board ease-of-use features that include a central access point, a common interface and extensive on-screen help.
- Central access: Both packages make it easier for users to access all the applications by providing a single point of entry. Lotus does a particularly nice job with its SmartCenter. Using the graphical metaphor of a file cabinet and drawers, SmartCenter provides a single place to store, access and launch all applications, documents, help tools and electronic documentation. The cabinet and drawers also provide direct access to frequently used information and tools such as Organizer appointments, the address book, e-mail and the Internet.
Microsoft Office, on the other hand, provides a set of icons in the upper right-hand corner of your Windows 95 screen that allows you to access your applications, contact manager and scheduler.
- Help features:
- Both suites offer explanations of features, which pop up when you put your cursor on the item, but Microsoft Office has a more extensive range of help features. Microsoft's AnswerWizards is a powerful feature that lets you type a question in your own words in a dialog box. The program then shows you a list of topics that might answer your question. You select a topic, and up pops a box giving you step-by-step instructions.
This is particularly useful with a suite, which offers a wide range of applications; after all, you probably want to spend your time working, not figuring out how to use the software.
Both packages include a shortcut bar with icons you can click on from any application. For example, you can add a contact to your database, schedule an appointment or send an e-mail message. You can even customize the shortcut bar by adding buttons that allow you to quickly access the documents and applications you use most.
Both suites also let you customize your applications to suit your work style. With each application, you can add, remove or change menu commands, tool-bar buttons or the way your screen looks.
The suites also provide templates that make it easy to create new documents and databases. Templates are predesigned, ready-to-use documents into which you put your own information. You can use the wide range of templates that come with the suites or add your own templates to existing collections.
One of the major reasons to purchase an office suite is to quickly create compound documents-for example, a word processing report containing spreadsheet information or graphics. Both Microsoft Office and Lotus SmartSuite allow documents to share information by supporting cut and paste, linking, and the Windows object linking and embedding (OLE) feature.
Linking lets you put the same information in the original file and also in a second document. For example, with a spreadsheet inserted into a word processing document, the linking feature would ensure that any updates to the original would be reflected in the second document. However, you can't edit the linked item from within the second document.
But with object linking and embedding, you can actually edit documents inserted in another file. For example, you could insert a spreadsheet or a graphics presentation into a word processing document, then edit it using the commands from the spreadsheet or graphics software while still in the word processing document. Your original document would be updated as well. Embedding is used when you don't think you'll have ongoing access to the original document such as when you receive files from someone else that you need to add objects to.
Microsoft Office goes beyond the capabilities of Lotus SmartSuite with its Office Binder feature. The Office Binder allows you to bring different finished documents from separate Office applications together in a single location. For example, if you write a business plan, you can create, save and arrange your Excel financial spreadsheets, Word reports, and PowerPoint presentations all in the same Microsoft Office Binder. When you're ready to print your business plan, you can print all the sections in the Binder as a single document.
One of the hottest new application capabilities is team computing, which allows groups of people to work together on projects over a LAN. With its tie-in to the more business-oriented Lotus Notes database, SmartSuite has a head start in team computing (not only is it the market leader, but Lotus has been involved in database development longer than any other manufacturer) and comes with a wide range of features in this area.
TeamReview, which is part of Freelance and Word Pro, allows a group of people to review and edit word processing and graphics files. Built-in markup tools (a pen in Freelance; strike-through, highlighting, annotations and other tools for marking up documents in Word Pro) allow reviewers to make edits or suggestions electronically and enable authors to incorporate them quickly and easily.
TeamConsolidate allows users to combine edits made by multiple people into one file. The versioning feature enables users to store all versions of the same file in chronological order so you can go back and see a history of the changes.
The TeamShow feature lets you use Freelance graphics to lead an off-site audience through an on-screen presentation.
TeamMail allows users to send an entire file or selected pages from a file via e-mail. This feature is available from within the SmartSuite applications so you don't have to exit your application and enter an e-mail program. Along with TeamMail, a routing feature allows users to view, edit or comment on a document so each user on the route receives the document complete with all the edits and comments of the previous team members.
Microsoft Office offers just a few of these team-computing features. It allows you to send and route documents via e-mail, but you must do it through a separate e-mail package, such as MS:Mail. Microsoft Word also offers a TeamReview feature, similar to SmartSuite's TeamConsolidate, that lets you make revisions and annotations on your documents. Once you get the revisions back, you can merge the reviewers' comments into the original document.
Both these packages provide an excellent set of applications. Microsoft Office currently has the lion's share of the market; it has the more popular individual applications and provides better help features. However, SmartSuite excels when it comes to team computing and ease of accessing applications and documents.
4 floppies: excellent
3 floppies: good
2 floppies: fair
1 floppy: poor
Lotus SmartSuite 96 Edition
Lotus Development Corp.
55 Cambridge Pkwy.
Cambridge, MA 02142
List Price: $399
Pluses: A wide range of team- computing features; easy central access to all your documents and applications
Minuses: Not as simple as Microsoft Office to create and print compound document
1 Microsoft Wy.
Redmond, WA 98052
List Price: Starting at $499
Pluses: Office Binder makes it easy to print compound documents; Answer-Wizards help you quickly find answers to questions about using the software
Minuses: Few team-computing features