When it comes to office suite programs,
bigger sometimes isn't all that better - Jan 20 1998

Bigger is better, right? So how come we
always complain about big -- big government, big business, big software?

But despite all our whining, when we actually get a choice most of us seem to opt for big. Even when we complain about bloated software requiring more and more hardware to give us features we never asked for and never learn to use, we still buy it.


Think of office suite software, for example.

It seems that if you want to be taken seriously as a business, you need to standardize on an office suite (80 per cent of the time on Microsoft Office). The software costs a few hundred dollars per workstation and requires significant amounts of hardware to run properly. And then you need to train yourself and your staff to use it.

But more of us than probably want to admit could do just fine with less. And while it might seem there's no alternative to the big, bloated suites, there are a couple. For years now, Claris (Apple's software division) and (gasp!) Microsoft have offered a pair of similarly named and similarly functioning programs. Both offer everything many of us may actually require in comparatively slim and trim packages, both of which have been recently upgraded: Claris Works Office version 5.0 and Microsoft Works version 4.5.

Traditionally, both products have been targeted for the education and home markets, and thus have not been taken seriously by business users. Yet both products can now import and export files in the standard business software formats, and offer attractive feature sets that could allow them to be used widely by real, functioning businesspeople.

Both programs offer competent word processors (only lacking the big guys' background spell checking), spreadsheets and databases. There are fewer bells and whistles than in either Word or Excel, but many of us won't find much missing. The databases are less powerful, but make up for it by being easier to use than the pro-level programs included in the big suites. Templates are included for many basic types of documents, including r?sum?s, in-
voices and the like. Form letters and mailing labels are easy to create.

With their many similarities, if you decide to try out a Works program, how should you decide which one? For a Win95 user, the decision may rest more on look-and-feel than capabilities. Not surprisingly, the Microsoft product looks like its Microsoft Office siblings, while even on a PC the Claris product looks more like a Mac program. Mac users may want to look at the Claris program first. Claris is aggressively updating both its Mac and Windows products and keeping the versions on the two systems in synch. Microsoft, as with other products, is a version behind in its Mac offering.

The Mac version of Claris Works claims it will work even on many older computers -- a two-meg 68020 (like an old Mac LC), for example, is still supported. On PCs, both companies are only supporting Windows 95 (or presumably NT) with their latest version. The many millions of Windows 3.1 users (who presumably could make the best use of software that respects their often older, slower hardware) will have to search out older version 3.0 of each program, if they can find copies at all.

There's also a basic difference in approach between the two products: with their scaled-down version of Microsoft Office, Microsoft Works users need to save separate word processor, spreadsheet, or database files; spreadsheet tables or charts can be copied and pasted into a word processor document, but the different functions are kept pretty discrete. Claris allows users to work this way if they want, but it's also possible to integrate all functions into a single document. Put a working spreadsheet in the middle of your word processor? While this will seem odd to an emigrant from an office suite, it makes a lot of sense. Claris also includes much more capable Draw functions than Microsoft's version, and allows files to be saved as Internet HTML.

Claris is advertising its product as an alternative to the traditional suites: it has renamed the product "Claris Works Office." Microsoft's marketing has been much more low-key. Its program is sometimes hard to find, though it appears as part of the Home Essentials package bundled with many new computers marketed for home users (a package also including Microsoft Word, an odd duplication of functions considering the Works word processor).

With each product selling for about $75 they're worth a look if, instead of "bigger is better," you're ready to consider that "less is more."*

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