People want their computers to do everything these days.
So a software "suite" seems the right product for the times: It bundles together sophisticated programs for text documents, charts, spreadsheets, presentations, electronic mail, and more.
Three major software publishers, Microsoft, Lotus, and Corel, have launched new suites this year.
And they all arrive with greater flexibility and easier use than their predecessors. They adopt the easy navigation style of the Internet within the programs; and they link your work more easily to the Internet's World Wide Web.
Best of all, the programs now understand English, not just computerese.
Not everyone needs such powerful programs or even has a powerful enough computer to use them. If your computer use is confined to word processing or spreadsheets - earlier versions of all these programs still offer powerful solutions.
The newer versions offer powerful hits to the pocketbook.
For this review - which tested the Microsoft and Lotus suites - the programs worked fine on a 486 chip and 20 megabytes of RAM memory. Less than that, and you may have trouble, although Microsoft says 8 megs is enough.
Advances here are significant and promise to trickle into other computer applications.
In Office 97, for example, putting "hyperlinks" into a document is easy, bouncing a reader to a Web site or another document.
All three programs can build Web pages and search the Web for information, such as current exchange rates to convert pesos to dollars for that big monthly spreadsheet.
Within the suites, navigation among programs has improved.
For typing a letter, for instance, lifting a name and address out of the database program and onto the letter or an envelope is a cinch - one step.
In Office 97 and Lotus SmartSuite, the biggest advances center around the use of so-called "natural language" programming.
Microsoft, for example, can summarize documents in its word-processing program.
Tell the program to summarize any article and it will shorten it, retain all the key points, and lose only detail. No kidding... in our numerous tests, this feature never missed a point.
Seems right out of the Jetsons!
Lotus SmartSuite uses the same technology to allow several people to work on the same document at the same time.
If one person writes a memo, other workers can edit it, make notes and corrections, without altering the original text.
When the edited document comes back to the writer, he or she can "consolidate" it - choosing which corrections to keep and which to delete.
The program then automatically rewrites the memo, fusing all the new comments with the original writing.
This is impressive technology, but it's also expensive technology. And a number of software critics say the innovations aren't worth the extra bucks.
Still, the advances mark a turning point in software that's both user-friendly and sophisticated.
While SmartSuite from IBM-owned Lotus targets business, Corel Office Professional aims for small-business and consumers.
Microsoft Office tries too offer everything for everybody. It comes in three versions - or four, depending on how you count them.
For home users, there's now a Microsoft suite called Home Essentials. (Replaces Microsoft Works, with its stripped-down versions of Office programs.)
Microsoft Office includes an animated Office Assistant - a cartoonish Albert Einstein, an animated paper clip, or any of a host of other characters.
Try to load an incompatible disk and the Office Assistant jumps, twirls, beckons, and spells out the error. As you type a document, the assistant moves around the screen to stay out of the way.
It's cute, but some critics find it annoying. They also don't like the incompatibility of Office 97's word-processing program with earlier versions of Word.
The Lotus SmartSuite package has similar new features, but animation is saved for introductory demos, some help functions, and presentations the user creates.
Within the suites, the Lotus Smart Center and Microsoft Outlook tie all the other programs together. One difference: Smart Center doesn't handle e-mail.
Macintosh versions of Microsoft Office (Pro and Standard) should be available this summer. Corel plans to have a Mac version this summer. Lotus has no plans for a Macintosh version.
Quips From Critics About Office 97
'The best of a very good lot.... Should keep Microsoft dominant.'
- Stephen H. Wildstrom, Business Week
'A monster that will devour about 120 megabytes of your hard drive.... High quality.'
- Hiawatha Bray, The Boston Globe
'Pesky cartoon critters get in the way.'
- Stephen Manes, The New York Times
'... A must upgrade for [business] sites already using Office.
- Herb Bethoney, PC Week