Office Suite Success

The manufacturers of the three major suites of office applications have extended their ongoing battle to new fronts in their scramble to give users products that encompass Internet and voice applications. But federal users have been less concerned with these breakthroughs than simply adhering to agency standards and getting a good deal.

Lotus Development Corp. has just released its SmartSuite Millennium Edition, Corel Corp. released a new revision of WordPerfect Suite 8, and Microsoft Corp.'s Office 97 still sells briskly as the company prepares to ship beta code on its next upgrade.

Federal users are excited about some new functionality these products offer— particularly World Wide Web publishing capabilities— but they say they still buy these products for time-honored "bread and butter" reasons: cost, compatibility with core enterprise standards and the degree of integration between individual suite applications.

For example, Carla Steinborn, a computer systems analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's information resources management staff in Silver Spring, Md., said her organization bought WordPerfect Suite 8 primarily because it is a standard there.

"We have a huge investment in WordPerfect knowledge," Steinborn said. "It's been in use for a long time, and it would be very costly to change."

Steinborn said that only the WordPerfect file format, not the entire suite, is her organization's standard. But she said she is satisfied with the way Corel handles files from competing software packages. "I use all three [companies'] spreadsheets," she said. "The Corel suite was very good at converting; the other packages less so."

Brand battles aside, little doubt remains that agencies are turning to office automation suites, rather than individual products, in ever-increasing numbers.

"Within defense and civilian agencies, there are a lot of people still taking the 'best-of-breed' approach, but that will change in the remainder of this calendar year and next," said Brent Lindsay, manager of U.S. government sales programs at Corel in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Lindsay said agencies replacing older technology because of the Year 2000 problem are increasingly choosing office automation suites.

Larry Jurcich, chief of information services at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said it seemed logical to switch to suite software last year during the bureau's initiative to replace outdated hardware. Even without a suite, ATF users were already demanding interoperability between desktop applications, Jurcich said.

"There is no document that exists in a vacuum," he said. "A spreadsheet has notes in a word processing file, and everything is linked in some way. Because suites were becoming more available, we thought that we ought to be looking at them to ensure compatibility and integration."

After evaluating two of the three major suites in depth, ATF recently purchased and deployed Microsoft Office 97 to 4,100 users nationwide, Jurcich said.

Although standardization and integration are at the forefront of their concerns, federal users have not turned a blind eye to new technology that is now available in the major suites. Internet capabilities rank first among their interests, and each vendor is making a push in this arena.

Internet Interests

Penny Scharfman, group manager for SmartSuite marketing at Lotus in Cambridge, Mass., said Lotus SmartSuite includes Web browsers from Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft; Lotus Mail e-mail software; and Lotus FastSite, a new Web-publishing tool targeted at end users rather than technologists.

SmartSuite users who want to export and distribute pages in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), for publishing on the Web, may convert files directly from any of the suite's eight applications or create "Web tables" from within Lotus 1-2-3 that use Internet-based data to perform calculations. In addition, Lotus applications include SmartCenter, an "Internet drawer" at the top of the screen that lets users access frequently used Internet data such as stock quotes and news feeds without having to leave their suite applications, Scharfman said.

Cindy Howard, director of product management for Corel Business Applications, said WordPerfect Suite 8 comes bundled with Netscape Navigator 3.0 and allows users to export pages directly to HTML. Users may also create slide shows in the suite's Presentation package that can be viewed over the Internet. Each core application automatically builds hyperlinks from text that begin with "http:," "mailto" or other appropriate prefixes, Howard said.

Users also can edit existing HTML documents from within WordPerfect. Corel's Barista Web-publishing tool goes a step beyond HTML by supporting Java applets and text-formatting options such as WYSIWYG pages, multiple columns and complex graphics. The next version of the suite, due early 1999, will provide full support for XML— eXtensible Markup Language, an emerging language for Web publishing— and allow users to insert Java or Microsoft's ActiveX applets directly into any document.

Matthew Price, group product manager for Microsoft Office in the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, said the Microsoft suite does not include Web publishing software, but it is designed to work in conjunction with the company's FrontPage package.

Every application in Microsoft's Office 97 features a wizard function that walks users through the process of saving documents in HTML; saving to a Web site directly from within an application; running Web-based slide shows; maintaining online databases that are able to be updated; and other Web export activities. In Microsoft Office 2000, due sometime next year, the company plans to erase some of the boundaries between Web publishing and routine office tasks.

"We don't think people should have to use batch-posting tools and FTP to get documents up to the Web," Price said.

Microsoft hopes to build that functionality directly into the products, so that the File Save dialog box will simply include an option for saving in HTML directly to a Web site. And people will be able to use the Windows Explorer file-discovery tool to view Web sites just as they now use it to view various local and network drives.

In addition, Price said the company is working on an enhanced version of XML, which is more sophisticated than HTML. XML support will allow Office users to retain rich-text formatting in documents, editable graphics and other elements even after they convert documents and post them to the Web. Federal managers appear interested in taking advantage of such high-powered Web capabilities, but they said it does not yet drive their purchasing decisions. Steinborn said Java support and publishing tools were important criteria when NOAA began evaluating suites, but they were not essential enough to make or break the buying decision.

"Web publishing is hugely important to us," she said. "But some of the tools aren't as mature as other things in the [Corel WordPerfect] suite. As the product matures we'll use those tools more and more. With the right tools, we could be seeing some big productivity enhancements."

Kimberly Tatarka, group manager of software, services and Internet products at Government Technology Services Inc. in Chantilly, Va., also said the inclusion of Internet capabilities within a suite remains in the early stages of development and demand. "We do not yet see a great deal of added value to incorporating Internet functionality into an office suite," she said.

The Vagaries of Voice

Likewise, speech recognition features also pre-date demand from users. WordPerfect Suite 8 now includes Dragon Naturally Speaking from Dragon Systems Inc., and SmartSuite incorporates ViaVoice technology from IBM Corp. Both products allow users to train their systems to respond to simple voice commands— saying "File open," for example, or to enter spoken numbers directly into a spreadsheet.

While voice technology has improved dramatically in the past couple of years, users and even vendors concede it may not be ready for large office or agency settings. "Voice is a very good selling point for end users and the consumer market, but large organizations aren't buying because of that feature," said Jamie Worlds, account manager for the federal government at Indelible Blue Inc., a Raleigh, N.C., reseller that specializes in products from Lotus and IBM.

Eric Brown, a senior analyst with the software strategy group at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said voice products are "pretty good" but so far have failed to meet users' expectations.

Consequently, the same issues that have always driven the sales of individual office applications will continue to sway the buying decisions of agencies buying suites. Agencies are buying for compatibility with existing standards and interoperability with their office infrastructures. And as always, price plays a huge role in the decision-making process. Jurcich said the ATF based its decision to buy Microsoft Office on its need for interoperability with messaging standards, despite a fairly large contingent of WordPerfect users.

"We had already settled on Microsoft Exchange for e-mail, and the deciding factor was how well the office suite would complement the e-mail program," Jurcich said.

A Suite Deal?

Although prices vary depending upon contracts and licensing arrangements, users and resellers agree Microsoft Office tends to be more costly than its competitors. Alan Bechara, vice president and chief operating officer of Comark Federal Systems Inc. in Chantilly, Va., a reseller that handles all three office suites, said the Corel WordPerfect Suite 8 costs half as much as Microsoft Office at face value.

"The Corel suite is one hell of a deal," Bechara said. But he added that the scales tend to tilt toward Microsoft when users begin evaluating the total cost of a product over its lifetime. "Microsoft is guaranteed compatible just because so many people already know how to use it," Bechara pointed out. "You save money because it's easier to support. Fewer file translations mean fewer day-to-day headaches."

GTSI officials estimated that Microsoft Office accounts for 75 percent of its total suite sales, with Lotus SmartSuite winning 15 percent and Corel WordPerfect accounting for the remaining 10 percent. Bechara said Microsoft Office easily makes up 90 percent of his suites sales. "If you're thirsty, you order a Coke," Bechara said. "The average buyer will just order Office. The underdogs may have more features, but Microsoft has popularity."

But Brown said he is not writing off Microsoft's competitors. If desktop alternatives such as kiosks and in-home smart devices become popular as Brown believes they will, other vendors will have an equal chance to introduce smaller, lighter software products.

Lotus already offers Esuite, a Java-based line of productivity applets that is more in line with Brown's prescription for the future. And buyers such as the ATF's Larry Jurcich insist they are by no means wedded to a particular vendor. "Change is difficult, but if a vendor can make that change easy, we'll consider them," Jurcich said.

-- Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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AT A GLANCE

Status: Office automation vendors are competing for market share by upgrading their packages with new Internet functionality, speech recognition and other features.

Issues: Some feds are interested in these new features, but most agencies are interested in such issues as price, cross-application integration and standards capability.

Outlook: Very Good. Although observers see Microsoft taking a lead with its Office suite, all users will benefit from the increased functionality and better prices brought by market competition.

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