Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Software suites offer good value, but they may be more than you really need

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #296  June 26, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Software suites have proved to be the big sales success of the last year or two. Suites bundle full versions of three or more programs, and are typically sold for the price of one to two of the individual applications.

    The longstanding success in the genre has been Microsoft Office; it bundles a word processor (Word), a spreadsheet (Excel), and a presentation-graphics program (PowerPoint), and is available in versions for Windows and the Mac. A so-called professional version (for Windows only) adds Microsoft's Access database.

    Lotus offers a competing product, SmartSuite, bundling the Lotus equivalents--AmiPro, 1-2-3, Freelance, and the Approach database.

    Novell has a new version called Perfect Office, based on a collection of products from Borland and WordPerfect, including WordPerfect, Quattro Pro spreadsheet, WordPerfect Presentations, and the Paradox database. The new version of the suite has received generally good reviews, and has had solid sales lately.

    As well as the core applications, each suite includes at least a couple of smaller applications--mail, personal-information managers, and more. Finally, each suite makes an attempt to provide some integration between the applications, and to make each seem more familiar to users through common menus, toolbars, and the like.

    Software suites seem to make a lot of sense: companies get a bundle of software from a single supplier, with a single interface, hopefully reducing training time. And at a bargain price, too. As a result, suite sales have been one of the brightest spots on the past year's software sales charts.

    This may not be the best strategy for every business or for every user, however. While many businesses want to standardize the software used on company machines, forcing a range of software on users can cause as many problems as it solves. Users who have learned skills with a particular piece of software are justifiably resentful at having to relearn those skills for another package because of a management decision to standardize. Despite claims to the contrary, saved data from programs previously used is not always imported with 100-per-cent accuracy. And different programs in the same category are not totally equivalent: some jobs may simply be more difficult to do with the spreadsheet included in the suite than with the product formerly used. In these cases, it may make more sense to use the "best of breed" in each category rather than a suite from a single manufacturer.

    Many users figure that since they've purchased a package with three, four or five programs, they can install them on three, four or five computers--maybe put the spreadsheet on one machine, the word processor on another, and so forth. Uh uh--read the licence. You've purchased the right to install all the applications on a single computer. If you don't need all the programs on that machine, the others, legally, are shelfware.

    Got a four-meg machine? Forget about opening more than one application at a time and sharing data between them. (In fact, this may be difficult on an eight-meg machine.) And take a look at the hard-drive space required. Installing all the programs in a suite can easily take 100 megs or more on your drive. Notebook users, in particular, should think twice before purchasing a suite.

    For many of these users, it may be worthwhile to take a look at the new generation of integrated software, products like Microsoft Works and Claris Works for both Windows or Mac. For a long time, many users sneered at these programs, regarding them as one step up from toys. And because earlier versions often didn't allow users to import and export files in formats usable by "real" business applications, they weren't a very viable alternative.

    But these integrated packages have grown up: they support a broader range of software formats, allowing users to work with files in Word or WordPerfect, Excel or 1-2-3 in the office, but to load them into a Works-genre program on the road. And in a much less resource-hungry package, they provide far more of the features users actually use most of the time.

    In many situations, purchasing a suite remains the best choice, but often enough that's not the case. Take a hard look at your real requirements, and don't just buy a suite because it looks like a lot of disks for the money.

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