Time once again for the three software giants to compete for your office suite dollars Feb 4 1997

The battle for your upgrade dollars has begun again, as all three of the big office suite manufacturers have released new versions in the past few months. And a serious battle it is--Microsoft Office, for example, the best-selling of the three, provides its maker with a full half of its revenue.

IBM/Lotus, with Smart Suite 97, and Ottawa's Corel, with Corel Office Professional, are tackling Microsoft's seeming stranglehold--the company has an estimated 80 per cent of the market share. Each of the underdogs has had some good news to crow about. Lotus, backed by IBM's muscle, has been able to get its product preloaded on a growing number of new computers, while Corel's new product, helped by aggressive price-cutting, beat out Microsoft Office in retail sales this past fall and winter.

Suites are packaged to include the most often used business software products--word processors, spreadsheets, presentation graphics packages, and, in some cases, databases--all together, and for the price of purchasing just two of the products separately. But by locking users into a single manufacturer's products, the hope is for an ongoing revenue stream, based on upgrades every two years or so.

The competition between these three companies has produced a series of products that are, in many ways, more similar than they are different. The 1997-generation office suites provide similar collections of core applications. All have been rewritten as 32-bit Windows programs; they will only run under Windows 95 or Windows NT. Windows 3.1 users may as well get used to it--they're no longer seen as a market for improved software. On the other hand, being off the eternal upgrade loop may not be such a bad thing.

Non-Windows users are also out of the loop. Microsoft Office is the only bundle of this sort for the Mac (though Corel has bundled its well-regarded Mac version of WordPerfect along with the new Mac release of Corel Draw). And even though IBM produces both Lotus Smart Suite and the OS/2 operating system, the version of Smart Suite for OS/2 is still incomplete--offering real OS/2 versions of only part of the suite, with even these remaining a generation behind the Win95 versions.

The hardware demands are greater than ever--think Pentium with at least 16 megs of RAM and several hundred megs of drive space to install all the components of a suite. They've all added features to produce more attractive output with less effort, to produce documents for the Internet or for intranets, and to allow users to share documents within a workgroup.

Competition among these companies is fierce. Corel, having only recently purchased WordPerfect and the other suite components, has to prove that it can make a go of it in this market, up against vastly bigger Microsoft and IBM. Lotus/IBM, with the smallest market share, needs to grow to keep from being perceived as completely irrelevant. And Microsoft, of course, wants to hang onto the billions of dollars of annual revenue it's currently collecting by dominating the suite market.

With business office suites being the primary software application on the majority of business computers, making the correct decision is critical.

Do any of these suites provide features that you need? Are these features compelling enough to justify switching from your current standard to a competing product? Are they compelling enough to justify upgrading your current hardware, even if you want the new version of your current software? Is it worth the fuss of upgrading from Windows 3.1 to Win95 or NT to run the newer software?

Or should you just ignore the hype and stick with whatever you're using now?

It's an important enough question that I'm going to look at the big-three office suites in more detail in the next couple of High-Tech Office columns. We'll see what features each offers, and at what cost, to help you decide whether you need to upgrade, and if so, to which product. Stay tuned!*

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