The Microsoft Corp. has come up with three new Windows products for people who have powerful personal computers, but who do not need all the power of conventional Windows business software.
It sounds like a narrow field, but it really is not. Computer prices are coming down as fast as computer technology is advancing, with the result that many beginning computer users today are starting out with machines that have the minimum requirements to run Windows software: a 386SX microprocessor, a few megabytes of system memory and at least 40 megabytes of hard disk drive storage.
Such a computer system, equipped with a color VGA monitor, keyboard and the usual accessories, can easily be found for less than $2,000.
Although they may have the computing horsepower to run the same software used in large businesses, beginning users do not necessarily need complex software.
For example, Microsoft makes an excellent spreadsheet called Excel, but using Excel to balance one's checkbook or manage the books of a small office is like using a chain saw to sharpen a pencil.
Simpler and less expensive programs like Intuit Inc.'s Quicken are much better suited to personalfinance, but Quicken does not yet have a Windows version.
Similarly, someone wanting to do simple desktop publishing has had to choose between a low-end product for DOS or a complex product for Windows.
If all one wants to do is produce a newsletter, a brochure or a student newspaper, Aldus Corp.'s Windows-based Pagemaker is overkill.
At the same time, a simple program like the Spinnaker Corp.'s PFS:First Publisher does not take full advantage of Windows.
Microsoft has now opened Windows to beginning users. We discussed Microsoft Works for Windows here last week. The two other new programs are Money and Publisher.
Microsoft Money is a new, Windows-based program that can be used to organize personal finances. Money is best described as a smart checkbook, useful for keeping track of checks, deposits, withdrawals, credit cards, business expenses and other simple financial records.
The rival Quicken is by far the most popular personal financial software for DOS computers, and
Microsoft clearly has studied it well.
Until a Windows version of Quicken appears, Money is the obvious choice for people who want to automate their personal or very small business accounts under a Windows computer system. It even works with Quicken files.
Unlike Quicken, Money does not allow its users to pay bills electronically. With Quicken, a user can subscribe to a service called Checkfree that allows them to pay bills by computer, through a national network.
Microsoft officials say that only 5 percent of Quicken users take advantage of that feature; Intuit officials concede the number is less than 10 percent. Also unlike Quicken, Money makes no provision for tracking stocks or other investments.
On the positive side, Money is a Windows product, which means it takes advantage of the Windows point-and-click command system.
It has the Microsoft Toolbar feature that reduces common operations to a single click. It also lets the user view several accounts at the same time.
We have not seen the Windows version of Quicken, which is under development. If it is ready before year's end, when many people start thinking seriously about organizing their finances, it will be a tough contest with Money.
Microsoft Publisher is our favorite of the new Windows programs, especially because of a feature called Page Wizards -- smart software tools that help the user perform common tasks. Microsoft officials said Microsoft Money ($69.95) would be available at the end of this month, while Microsoft Publisher ($199.95) is expected to reach the stores by Oct. 7.