The Sweetest Suites

Once upon a time, an office suite was just a bunch of applications thrown into a box and tagged with a discounted price.

However, that is the case no more. Office suites have become progressively better integrated, with easier-to-use tools for moving data between applications. For example, you now can grab a list you have created in the word processor and click a button to zip it off to the presentation program to create a series of slides. Or grab a set of cells in the spreadsheet, drag it to the word processor and drop it in as a formatted table.

Today's suites are more modular than in the past, which offers two benefits to users. First, when all the applications share the same spell-check tool, thesaurus or file-search utility, the amount of disk space required for the applications is held down. Of course, you can still expect a full installation of these monster packages to take up well over 100M, but every little bit counts. The other advantage is that when one applet is shared across all the applications, users do not have to familiarize themselves with multiple versions.

Perhaps the one area where suites have made the most progress is in opening up to in-house and third-party developers. Thanks to Microsoft Corp.'s and Lotus Development Corp.'s decision to expose program objects to Microsoft Visual Basic and other related programming languages, Office and SmartSuite have been transformed into application development platforms. Want to create a custom applet for tracking and processing expenses in your company? If you know how to program in Visual Basic or LotusScript, it is no problem.

And, of course, it goes without saying that the power and ease of use of the applications in the suites also have improved. Today all the major applications in the suites are part of a fully integrated 32-bit program. In short, office suites have evolved from simple bundles of applications into mature work environments, and they are surprisingly close to each other in terms of the power and features they provide. There is, of course, still room to improve. For example, while you will find better tools for routing documents to other users, the suites don't offer the power of a full-fledged document-management program.

In this comparison, we focused on the integration of the suites, especially on how consistent each interface is among the suite's applications and how easy it is to share data. All the suites provide world-class applications of comparable power. The major differences between them-apart from price-lie in how well they put the pieces together.

The two packages that do the best job of this are Lotus SmartSuite 97 and Microsoft Office 97, which both finished above 7.0 on our scale from 1 to 10. SmartSuite 97 wins our comparison with a combination of very good applications and a low price. Office 97's interface and groupware capabilities are slightly better than SmartSuite's; however, you'll pay for those enhancements because Microsoft charges more than twice as much as Lotus for an upgrade. The package that has made the most improvements in the last year is Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect Suite 8.0, which ended up with a competitive score of 6.60. The individual applications in this suite are on par with those offered by Microsoft and Lotus, but the integration of them is lagging, as are the groupware capabilities.

State and local agencies can feel good about upgrading to any one of these packages. Certainly Lotus and Corel offer more bang for the buck, but Microsoft offers some advanced features not available from the other two vendors.

Patrick Marshall is a senior writer at the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at patrick_marshall@infoworld.com.

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The Contenders

Corel Corp. WordPerfect Suite 8.0 Professional available at a special state and local government price. Score: 6.60

Lotus Development Corp. SmartSuite 97 available at a special state and local government price. Score: 7.20

Microsoft Corp. Office 97 Professional available at a volume discount. Score: 7.15

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