New SmartSuite gives Office a run for its money

For information technology decision-makers in most federal agencies, the main question in selecting an office suite is whether there is any convincing reason to swim against the Microsoft Corp. tide. After all, the Microsoft suite offers a world-class set of tightly integrated applications, and because the suite overwhelmingly dominates the market, it offers the best file compatibility with other users.

With the just-released Version 9.5 of Lotus Development Corp.'s SmartSuite Millennium Edition, however, agency buyers will find several reasons to ponder making a move.

One convincing reason to consider SmartSuite is its price. With a General Services Administration schedule price of $140, SmartSuite is significantly less expensive than the Microsoft suite.

What's more, Version 9.5 of the suite should ease administrators' concerns about file compatibility because the product offers seamless compatibility with Microsoft Office formats, up to and including Office 2000.

For example, SmartSuite users can directly open a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet in Lotus 1-2-3, edit it, and when the file is saved, it will be saved automatically in the original Excel format.

Apart from the lower cost, SmartSuite offers one other obvious edge over Microsoft Office, at least for some users: voice recognition. As with the previous version, SmartSuite 9.5 offers IBM Corp.'s ViaVoice program, turning your spoken words into transcribed computer characters. Users familiar with the voice-recognition tools in the previous version of SmartSuite will find them somewhat expanded in Version 9.5. Now the voice tools have been integrated into 1-2-3 as well as into Word Pro. ViaVoice does a creditable job of taking dictation, although you'll find that you have to spend a bit of time training the program to get acceptable results. Be aware, however, that many users will find the results of dictation too unpredictable to rely upon. In other words, before deciding to standardize your department on SmartSuite because of its voice-recognition capabilities, you would be well advised to test the tools yourself.

Bear in mind that if you want to use ViaVoice with SmartSuite, you'll need to meet a higher standard for hardware. The minimum configuration that will work is a Pentium 166 with 32M of system memory (48M if you're running Windows NT).

The other area in which SmartSuite distinguishes itself from Microsoft Office, not surprisingly, is in its tight integration with Lotus Notes and Domino. If your shop is running a Notes server, SmartSuite users can open and/or save files directly into Notes databases. What's more, if you're using Notes 4.6 or later, you can open 1-2-3 and Word Pro files directly from Notes. And ensuring that you have the latest Notes client isn't a problem because Lotus has bundled a Notes 5.0 client in the suite.

Built-in Integration Tools

While it is voice recognition and Notes integration that primarily distinguish SmartSuite from Office, the Lotus suite also is very competitive when it comes to the power and integration of its major applications. Unlike Microsoft, Lotus has opted to throw all its suite applications into one version, which includes Word Pro, 1-2-3, the Approach database, the Organizer scheduler/contact manager and the Freelance Graphics presentation program. With the exception of Organizer, all the products are very competitive with their counterparts in other suites.

Organizer, which is delivered in a new version, has been enhanced to add basic contact history-tracking tools. But it is more of a personal information manager than an enterprise contact manager and scheduling tool.

And while the product does support group scheduling, those tools depend on Notes being present.

SmartSuite's applications are effectively tied together by SmartCenter, an independent menu bar consisting of virtual drawers that can be opened with a click of the mouse. By default, SmartCenter offers eight drawers that provide quick access to SmartSuite applications as well as to World Wide Web sites, contacts and appointments, a dictionary and a thesaurus.

In addition, SmartSuite has led the way in collaborative workgroup tools, although Microsoft has caught up for the most part. The newest version of SmartSuite continues to offer these collaborative tools. TeamMail lets SmartSuite users mail documents without launching a separate e-mail program. TeamReview enables users to route documents to others and to assign editing privileges. TeamConsolidate is used to combine revised documents into a final version. TeamShow lets users show a presentation over a network. And TeamSecurity enables users to set file-sharing controls for Word Pro and Approach files.

Web Integration

Version 9.5 of SmartSuite also introduces enhanced Web support. Lotus has bundled the latest version of its nifty FastSite Web publishing tool in the suite. While FastSite doesn't offer the power and flexibility of a Hypertext Markup Language converter, such as InfoAccess Inc.'s HTML Transit, the product does make it very easy to perform basic conversions of batches of files using attractively designed, customizable templates. What's more, FastSite can be used to post documents directly to Lotus Domino servers. SmartSuite users also can move documents to the Web one at a time by saving them in HTML or Java document format.

The Bottom Line

SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5 is certainly worthy of consideration for any agency or department facing a purchasing decision for an office suite, especially if there is a perceived need for voice-recognition capabilities or if the organization already is standardized on Notes. Apart from its voice-recognition capabilities, its integration with Notes and Domino, and its relatively low price, SmartSuite doesn't offer any significant advantages over the dominant Microsoft Office. But SmartSuite's new compatibility with Office formats should make it possible for the Lotus suite to get the nod from some departments that might otherwise be hesitant.

*****

SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5Lotus Development Corp.(617) 577-8500www.lotus.com

Price and Availability: SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5 is available on the GSA schedule. A single SmartSuite license available from one GSA vendor is $140. The Media Pack costs $18, and the manuals cost $70.

Remarks: SmartSuite Millennium Edition 9.5 has added seamless compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. The suite is a strong choice for departments running Notes and for those who need voice-recognition capabilities.

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