Techniques: Off the Shelf

Which of the latest office suites is the small businessperson's best friend?

Even a sales rookie knows that the real customers for a product are rarely swayed by fancy features. But that simple truth has not deterred the developers of the latest office suites from Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. These companies have loaded their releases with so many attractions that the fainthearted might easily be overwhelmed before they learn to work the tools they need.

Don't get me wrong: these are good products, and the suite concept is great. For one thing, if you use several applications, it's cheaper to go with the coordinated collection than to purchase the components separately. For example, buying Word 97 and Excel 97 from one of the major mail-order catalogs would cost you $659.98. That same distributor charges only $549.99 for Microsoft Office 97 Professional Edition, which also includes three other programs that, if purchased separately, would bring your grand total to $1,409.95.

The suites are coordinated to reduce the complexity of cumbersome office tasks. I, for example, customize the slides I use for presentations to my client The Executive Committee (TEC). A few weeks before I address a group of TEC CEOs, I survey the members about their use of business technology and then incorporate their responses into my slides. Consequently I need to redo maybe 10 of 50 PowerPoint slides every time I deliver my presentation. With Office 97, I simply compile the survey results in Excel. Because the two programs are linked, PowerPoint automatically updates my slides.

For this article I auditioned Microsoft Office 97--the Professional Edition and the Small Business Edition--and Lotus SmartSuite 97. (Corel Corp. released its WordPerfect Suite 8 last summer. Because its Netscape Communicator piece was not scheduled to be available for several months, I didn't put that lower-priced collection through the same paces as its competitors.)

Whichever product you choose, you will need plenty of disk space on a powerful computer running Windows 95 or Windows NT. These applications are demanding: Word 97 alone swallows 46 MB of disk, while the full Professional Edition devours from 73 MB to 191 MB. All the Lotus SmartSuite applications are supposed to work just fine with only 8 MB of memory, but you'll have to be content running just one program at a time and willing to forfeit the benefits of an integrated suite. Otherwise, plan on 12 to 16 MB.

Microsoft and Lotus, like the rest of the civilized world, are caught up in a heady love affair with the Internet, and their software handily converts documents into HTML, the Web's lingua franca. I experimented with that feature using slides I was preparing for a presentation at Coca-Cola about intranets. Using PowerPoint, I simply clicked on "Save as HTML," and the program led me through six simple layout steps that even sized the graphics. Following my responses, the program then created a group of Web-ready HTML files; the whole process took less than five minutes. I tried the same thing with an Excel spreadsheet, and that was even easier. Already Office 97 has changed my life. Instead of mailing a hard copy of my presentations, I now refer people to my Web site, and I'm saving a bundle on postage and copying.

Ubiquitous Microsoft already owns so much of the market that for many the decision boils down to which of its offerings to buy. Don't base your choice on the product names though. The Small Business Edition may be great for some companies, but others--equally small--will find it lacking. On the street the small-business version sells for about $450, and the professional version is going for about $550. Low-priced upgrades from earlier versions are also available.

Both editions include Microsoft's word processor, Word 97; its spreadsheet program, Excel 97; and the calendar program, Outlook 97. Only the Professional Edition includes the presentation -graphics tool, PowerPoint 97, and the database program, Access 97. In their places the small-business package provides a desktop publishing tool, Microsoft Publisher 97; Small Business Financial Manager 97; and disappointing location-mapping software called Automap Streets Plus.

As far as I can see, Small Business Financial Manager 97 is not much of an asset. Rather than a discrete program, it's a compilation of Excel macros that let you play what-if games with data you import from your own accounting program. Many of the financial manager's reports--actual-to-budget comparisons, balance sheets, and the like--we already get from QuickBooks, so I played around with a lease-versus-buy scenario. The interactive slider bars, graphic representations of different variables, eliminate the mystery of each variable's impact on results. But because I wasn't actually in the market to lease or buy anything, for me this application--although a cool concept--was so much window dressing.

As a consultant and professional speaker, I make more than 100 presentations every year, and PowerPoint is one of the most valuable tools of my trade. PowerPoint Central, a feature new with this release, acts as an on-line tutor and resource center. If you activate it while you are on the Web, it automatically checks your software and allows you to download PowerPoint updates, tutorials, clip art, sounds, and photographs from Microsoft's Web site. When, shortly after its introduction of Office 97, Microsoft issued a service release that fixed program bugs, it was PowerPoint Central that alerted me to its existence.

I had always assumed that database programs like Access 97 were meant for companies much larger than my virtual business, so initially I agreed with Microsoft's decision to leave it out of the Small Business Edition. We'd been satisfied with a stand-alone contact manager to conduct daily business and manage our customer list, but I decided to give Access a try. On-screen instructors called Wizards provide step-by-step directions that guide the construction of mailing lists, inventory files, order -entry systems, and other databases. In a matter of minutes, a Wizard had helped me design a new mailing list. Suddenly, I understood why a great many small businesses might not want to do without.

Outlook 97--a hybrid calendar, personal-information manager, E-mail client, and contact manager--replaces Office 95's clunkier Schedule+. I initially found Outlook's E-mail package time-consuming because each time I composed a message, I would wait for Word to open. I later discovered that the program does have its own E-mail editor that I had somehow managed to overlook.

I am always forgetting where I've stored my documents, so I thought I would love Outlook's journal option. Outlook Journal tracks your use of Microsoft products, and you can open your documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and databases by clicking on them in the date-stamped time line it compiles. As it turns out, I never did use Outlook Journal. If I had to track the amount of time I spent on specific jobs, the journal might prove useful, but since I don't, I'd rather not have it eating up space on my disk or slowing down my other programs. I consider this another feature that sizzles but is largely steakless.

Microsoft is touting Office 97's new Office Assistant, but I'm sure I'm not the only experienced user who is annoyed by such on-line meddlers. Assuming the guise of Shakespeare, a smiley face, Albert Einstein, a dog named Power Pup, or one of six other choices, this reincarnation of the famously failed Bob answers questions and occasionally suggests ways to make the most of suite components.

I chose Albert to be my assistant. He stood there, blinking and scratching his face, until I clicked on him and typed, "How do I convert a Word document to HTML?" He did respond with a list of appropriate help files, but he was still a nuisance. It seemed I was forever having to move him out of my way. When exasperation took over, despite his objections--he pouted and stamped his feet--I was glad to turn him off.

Although Microsoft dominates the market, some Lotus loyalists prefer SmartSuite 97, which works well with other Lotus products like Notes and Domino. SmartSuite includes 1997 versions of the company's 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Word Pro, Approach, Freelance Graphics presentation software, Organizer, and ScreenCam--multimedia software that can record your work, keystroke by keystroke. If you're like me--I cut my teeth on an early version of 1-2-3, and most of the Lotus commands remain etched in my subconscious--you'll easily find your way around all the SmartSuite software. Unlike earlier versions, though, all the new software is 32 bit, and users can exploit such Windows 95 features as long file names. SmartSuite's street price--$399.99--is lower that its Microsoft counterpart.

Several of the Lotus programs have SmartMasters (similar to Microsoft Wizards) to help users. Working in Approach, in less time than I take to eat lunch, one of those SmartMasters guided me through the process of designing an interactive survey that lets us enter responses as we get them. Approach is also ready to do cross tabs and other queries. In the past we had to translate survey responses into numerical codes before we could compile results in an Excel spreadsheet.

SmartCenter, SmartSuite 97's user interface, operates like a file cabinet for the entire suite: you get to applications, files, and tools by opening the virtual drawers on your screen. The reference drawer, for example, holds a dictionary and a thesaurus, and the Internet drawer gives quick access to headlines, stock quotes, weather, and bookmarks. One click is all it takes to reach your favorite Web site.

Back in the early 1980s, when Lotus released its earliest versions of 1-2-3, I was one of the program's original fans. I learned to make it work for me and, over the years, came to depend on its flexibility for many of my business chores. Over time, however, I grew used to the consistent interface of Microsoft's products, and for that reason I find that Office 97--particularly the Professional Edition--has a slight edge over SmartSuite 97. Integration among applications is excellent, it's a breeze to incorporate data from one program into another, and the interface with the Internet is simple and practical. However, the Lotus SmartSuite applications are also beautifully integrated, and its Web connectivity is excellent as well. Since both the Microsoft and Lotus products are terrific at the basics, I recommend that you purchase the one whose interface works best for you.

These are elegantly efficient tools, but like any professional apparatus, they are valuable only if you train the people who are going to use them. Each product has numerous important features, many of which I discovered only by accident. The stumbling-around approach is obviously an inefficient way to learn, and you run the risk of never realizing what these suites can do--or how easily they can do it. Without proper preparation, you could inadvertently reduce these powerful tools to glorified electric typewriters and calculators.

Jordan Ayan is president of Create-It! Inc., a consulting and professional-speaking company in Naperville, Ill., and the author of Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas.

The Product: Microsoft Office 97 Professional Edition, Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA (1-800-426-9400; MSRP: $599)

Basic Requirements: 486 or higher; with Windows 95, 8-12 MB memory to run individual programs; with Windows NT 3.1, 16 MB memory to run individual programs; typically 121 MB hard-disk space; CD-ROM drive; super VGA video adapter and 256 colors recommended; Internet access at 14.4 Kb recommended.

Note: Check with the retailer or manufacturer for additional requirements for specific parts of each suite.

The Product: Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition (MSRP: $499)

Basic Requirements: 486 or higher; with Windows 95, 8-12 MB memory to run individual programs; with Windows NT 3.51 or Workstation 4.0, 16 MB memory to run individual programs; typically 196 MB hard-disk space; CD-ROM drive; super VGA video adapter and 256 colors recommended; Internet access at 14.4 Kb recommended.

The Product: SmartSuite 97, Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, MA (1-800-343-5414; MSRP: $679)

Basic Requirements: 486/50 or higher; with Windows 95, 8 MB memory to run individual programs; with Windows NT 4.0, 16 MB memory to run individual programs; minimum 82 MB hard-disk space; VGA video adapter.