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    MS Office competition report card: works well with others

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver April 13-19, 2004 Issue 755; High Tech Office column

    Last November, this column looked at Microsoft Office 2003; the latest revision of this widely-used product. Many people have resisted calls to upgrade over the years, however. Office 2000 is the most widely used version, while the six-year old Office 97 remains in use in many offices.

    While the many versions of Microsoft's suite continue to dominate, they're not the only options for business users needing word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software, not even if the ability to work with MS Office-style files is a requirement. A pair of competitors were quietly upgraded recently, each combining more features than most of us will ever use, the ability to read and write to Microsoft file formats and lower prices than Microsoft's.

    Word Perfect, now owned by Ottawa-based Corel, is descended from the dominant word processor of the early 1990s. The Word Perfect Office suite ($450) adds Quattro Pro spreadsheet and Corel Presentations slideshow software. A professional version, adding Paradox database software is also available. While MS's latest Office 2003 requires Windows 2000 or XP systems, Corel's suite is less picky, running on versions back to Windows 98SE or NT 4.0.

    New versions of Word Perfect enhance the venerable Reveal Codes feature, appreciated by long-time users for its power to fine-tune document formatting. The suite supports a large number of file formats, including Microsoft's, and makes it easy to convert large numbers of files at once. Unlike, say, Word 2003, which cannot save in Word Perfect format. The ability to save in Adobe Acrobat PDF format is also a big plus.

    The look and feel of the program is highly customizable; fans of the classic DOS versions can even make it mimic the blue screen and keyboard commands of that oldie. Since the latest version shares the same file format with Word Perfect versions stretching back to version 6.1, it's easy to share files with users of older versions of Word Perfect.

    Word Perfect continues to have a strong user-base in the legal profession and the government sector, and is pre-installed on new computers from Dell and other major manufacturers.

    Even more affordable is Sun Microsystem's Star Office, also with a new version 7: retail pricing starts at CDN$120, with the price dropping for volume licensing. Licensing allows installation on up to five systems. And if that's too expensive, it shares code with the open source Open Office 1.1, available as a free download (, but with no support.

    These latest versions of Star Office and Open Office offer better-than-ever compatibility with Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint file formats, though there is no support for macros built using Microsoft's VBA language.

    As with Corel's suite, Star Office/Open Office will run on older Windows versions. In addition, Linux and Solaris operating systems are supported, and a Mac OS X version of Open Office is in the works. Like the newest version of Word Perfect - and unlike Microsoft's Office - Star Office can export documents to Adobe PDF; as well, its Impress module can export presentations in Flash format. Both features will be handy for creating documents for use online.

    Both Star Office and Open Office take a long time to start up; once up and running, performance is adequate.

    If your office relies on Microsoft's Outlook or the Access database, or makes heavy use of VBA macros, you're forever tied to Microsoft Office. But if that isn't the case, and you're looking for an alternative to older MS Office versions, Word Perfect, Star Office and Open Office all play nice with MS Office files and will run on a wider range of systems than Microsoft's latest versions. Well worth considering. 

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan