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ISSUE 546: The high tech office- April 11 2000

ALAN ZISMAN

Revamped Microsoft Office offers users too much

Most of you are probably using some version or other of Microsoft Office for word processing. Ironically for Microsoft, the biggest competitors of its current version -- Office 2000 -- are older versions of Office. Many businesses and individual users see little need to upgrade from previous versions of the software behemoth.

Some of you are using Corel Word Perfect, while a tiny minority -- including Linux users -- have switched to something such as Sun's freely downloadable (and MS Office-compatible) Star Office.

But let's look back to when notebook users or users of older, slower computers avoided these space-hogging office suites, trading away high-end features to save drive space by opting for an integrated application package such as Microsoft Works or Claris (now Apple) Works.

Apple Works is still bundled with that company's best-selling iMac hardware, with a new version 6 promised, but not yet released.

Microsoft has a new version for the PC/Windows platform, available in two different editions. The basic version (about $99) offers a revised take on the classic Works collection -- basic word processing, spreadsheet, database and calendar. None of the tools are as powerful as their Office equivalents but, for many of us, this is not necessarily a bad thing. How many really use all those features of Word or Excel?

The word processor is the most improved of the bunch. It offers real-time grammar and spell checking and can display Word 97/2000 files with reasonable accuracy. The spreadsheet and database are little changed from the previous version, but offer robust, basic functionality. In fact, where Office's database, Access, is a powerful tool that only a programmer can love, the Works database is quick and easy to learn, aimed at mere mortals with modest data entry and analysis needs. It is a hidden gem of a program.

While the core program isn't much changed, Microsoft has totally re-
thought the way users approach it. If you insist, you can go straight to a blank word processor or spreadsheet document, but if you start up Works, you get a Web-like page offering choices from a large list of common tasks. Microsoft is suggesting that most users don't really want to run software, they just want to get a
job done.

Nice idea, but I was less impressed with the implementation. I found the list of tasks slow and difficult to navigate, even on reasonably modern hardware. And I was saddened that Microsoft took away virtually all options to customize the applications. True, only a minority of users ever bother with such features, but I've always welcomed the ability to make a program work differently than the way the programmers decide. With Works 2000, I can no longer do that.

While the new word processor is the most improved part of the program, the $159 Works Suite 2000 throws it away, replacing it instead with a full-version of Microsoft Word 2000. For the price, it offers a lot of stuff of potential value to home and small business users -- seven CDs worth in all. The collection includes the basic Works package (with the word processor there but hidden) and Word 2000, along with the standard version of Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia. Money 2000 is a basic personal finance program. Expedia Streets and Trips 2000 is a U.S.-focused street maps and vacation-planning program. Picture It Express aims at basic photo manipulation for scanner and digital camera owners, while Home Publishing offers a set of tools for taking those photos and producing cards, calendars and the like. Each features the same Web-like, task-based opening screen, with lots of wizards to walk users through projects. Just be prepared to do a lot of CD-disk swapping to make use of all this stuff.

While not aimed at your typical office, it offers a lot of value, and will show up bundled with a lot of computers aimed at home users -- and by including Microsoft Word in the mix, it's easy to bring work home from the office, for those of us who relish seven-day, 65-hour work weeks.

Microsoft Works used to be something I could recommend as a leaner, meaner alternative to the big office suites. But even the basic version wants 120 - 155 MB of drive space -- more in fact, than a typical install of Office 97.

But most of us have drive space to burn nowadays. And if you were thinking of getting a copy of Word anyway, this is a cheap way to get
it, along with Encarta, and a bunch of other stuff thrown into the
package.
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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan