Sizing Up Office Suites

Article excerpt

Office suites are the hot new computer software application products. If you don't already use a suite, this article tells you why you should. If you do use or plan to buy one, this article will help you decide which is best for your needs.

What's all the fuss about office suites? First of all, they're fast, friendly, smart and powerful. And those who don't use one are working under a severe handicap.

Why, you may ask, should a CPA use a suite of applications rather than, say, Microsoft Word for word processing, Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheet work and Corel Paradox for a database?

An analogy explains it best: Pit a well-practiced football team made up of average players against a pick-up group of superior players. Odds are the pick-up team, despite their individual skills, will be defeated by the average players who have practiced together and worked out effective offensive and defensive strategies.

An office suite is like that well-practiced team-except in this case the individual applications are all superior products. A suite is a collection of applications engineered to work together, which is why it is called a suite. A typical suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet, database, calendar and presentation software. While each component does a separate job, they all share many common working parts, which is what makes suites so powerful and user-friendly. The high-tech buzzword that describes that level of software cooperation is "seamless"--a word you will hear more about in the years to come as an increasing array of such products comes to market.

As the word implies, a seamless application has few barriers, or seams, between it and its other applications. And that means material from one--be it text, an array of numbers in a spreadsheet, a field in a database or a graphic from a presentation--can be copied and pasted into a file created in any other member of the suite family. In fact, not only can you easily copy and paste but in some cases data from one also can be edited and formatted by another application. For example, spreadsheet data can be imported into a word processor, where the data can be edited without destroying the formatting or the relationships among the numbers. The reverse also is true: related numbers originating in a word processor can be imported into a spreadsheet file and the numbers will maintain their relationship.

In addition, suite applications share many software tools. For example, if you "teach" the word processor to recognize the spelling of a name--such as Wayne Schulz--the spreadsheet application also will recognize it because both applications use the same dictionary. Graphics created in one application can be shared easily with others in the suite because they use the same graphics software. Some suite applications even share commands and have a common interface, making them easy to learn and use. Most suite users can be up and running within an hour of loading the software.

In this article, we look at the three major office suites: Corel Office 7, Lotus SmartSuite 97 and Microsoft Office 97. All three, designed to run on the Windows 95 or NT operating systems, have been upgraded recently. These upgrades added enhancements and lots of Internet polish to three already robust sets of applications. The latest versions also added or enhanced scheduling and calendar applications. Unlike Lotus, Corel and Microsoft sell several varieties of their suite packages. For example, the plain-vanilla version of Microsoft Office 97 omits Access, the database application; the Professional Office 97 package adds Access. For this article, we looked at the top-of-the-line packages, which contain all the applications; both Corel and Microsoft call their top office suite packages Professional versions.

Choosing a suite is a commitment not unlike marriage: It's relatively easy to get into the relationship, but getting out often raises problems because not all the competing suites "communicate" accurately with each other. …