'Big boxes' of office software beat buying individual programs

Personal Computers

August 12, 1996|By Stephen Manes

THE POPULARITY of plug-in modules for Web browsers like Netscape Navigator has led some pundits to conclude that we are finally well along the road to modular "object-oriented" software. Supposedly the Internet will soon be awash in single-purpose components that we will buy, rent or be permitted to use free of charge, though not necessarily free of advertising.

This is not necessarily a good thing for those of us old enough to remember when thesauri and spell checkers were costly separate add-ons to bare-bones word processors and when operating systems came without even rudimentary file management software.

Just as some choose to acquire tools one wrench at a time, others prefer to buy huge kits, complete with carrying cases, at a big discount. Components may be fine, but for now, the popular low-cost way to get work done is with software suites that I prefer to call "Big Boxes o' Software."

Microsoft Office is by far the market leader and, until now, the Windows 95 version remained the only suite specifically designed for last year's operating system.

The version of the 1-2-3 spreadsheet in Lotus's Smartsuite 96 does not recognize long file names. But now the Corel Corp. tosses its bits into the Windows 95 ring with Wordperfect Suite 7.

The news here is the low price, about $100 as an upgrade from just about any competitive product, or about $250 if you have somehow avoided owning even a single similar component. That is about as cheap as this much software has ever been.

The suite includes not only the latest versions of the Wordperfect word processor, Quattro Pro spreadsheet and Corel Presentations graphics programs, but also the Corelflow business graphics program, the Sidekick 95 personal information manager, the Dashboard 95 program launcher, 10,000 clip art images and dozens of fonts.

You also get software that lets you control things with voice commands and a perfectly functional copy of Netscape Navigator 2.01 that you are supposed to use only if you sign up for AT&T's Worldnet Internet access service.

Whoops! I left out the screen saver and things like Standard Generic Markup Language. But if that is still not enough, an even bigger box, Corel Office Professional 7, is expected to arrive on store shelves this week for about $75 more.

Like Microsoft's, Corel's suites take advantage of many of the benefits of Windows 95, most notably long file names. The programs work with OLE, though unlike Word, Wordperfect cannot magically make its own menus pop up elsewhere. And Corel has copied features first seen in Office.

In Wordperfect, as in Word, you will see little red lines appear automatically under words the spelling checker suspects of being misspelled, and you will watch the first words of sentences be capitalized automatically unless you insist otherwise.

As in the Microsoft versions, you can ask full-sentence questions like "Why is this thing not working?" and occasionally get a moderately germane answer.

The major new addition is the World Wide Web. The three main programs can launch your Web browser from the menu bar and, more cleverly, embed hypertext links in your own documents with a few keystrokes. The result is that a single click on a phrase or an on-screen button in a document can send a browser into action and take you directly to a particular Web site.

It is also surprisingly easy for nonprogrammers to use the programs to produce and edit files in the HTML format the Web demands. In less than 10 minutes, the Presentations module was able to help me produce a set of Web pages that used fancy "frames" for a stylish look marred only by a shameless and persistent plug for Corel Presentations, which the program decided would spruce up my pages. After a little fiddling, I figured out exactly which files to bring into Wordperfect to expunge the offending lines.

But like other new technologies, this one has plenty of rough edges. Although the program implies that you can make the suite work with browsers other than Navigator, a company spokesman conceded that some features might not work even after you edit the Windows 95 registry by hand, a job that is not for the fainthearted.

Even with Navigator, the links between programs, documents and the Internet may behave unpredictably. And since Wordperfect cannot accurately show what a page you create will look like in the browser, a lot of swapping is mandatory.

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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