Review: Six office suites

How do alternative office software in the market stack up against Microsoft Office? A look at offerings from Evermore, Lotus, Sun, OpenOffice and Corel.

Developers of alternative office software need to place more emphasis on ease of conversion if they ever wish to de-throne Microsoft.


Contents
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Word processors, spreadsheets, and associated office applications tend to be long-term solutions, whether they are used in the workplace or in the home. For those of you that are starting up a new office or feel that your current system isn't up to scratch, it is worth taking a moment to consider the options available to you. Microsoft's offering is very good of course, but you don't have to settle for it just because everyone else you know uses it.

Step one: determine your needs. Word-processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software are basics. How about graphics editors and relational databases? Do you need macro scripting? PDF publishing? Integrated e-mail? You certainly need to consider the ease with which existing information can be imported into the new software package.

While companies such as Corel are famed for their graphics packages, most office suites don't include tools for producing more than basic geometric figures or graphic imports. StarOffice and OpenOffice are better in this regard, although there are certainly better standalone products on the market.

The precise range of components available in a package will vary from one product edition to another.

Major packages may be sold as standard, professional, educational and even home editions. Generally it is features such as databases, XML publishing, and extended product support that will be excluded from less expensive product versions. When you go shopping, don't simply ask for Microsoft Office or Corel WordPerfect. Even the new product from China, Evermore Integrated Office, has half a dozen licensing and product combinations.

Compatibility
"I got the file you e-mailed, but I couldn't read it." This annoying problem is all too common. The solution doesn't require that everybody use the same software, but some standards wouldn't hurt. As much by default as for quality issues, Microsoft's massive market share has seen its file formats take on the role as the formatting standard. If you don't use Microsoft products, chances are you might need to convert to Microsoft formats before sending material to clients or publishers.

Interestingly, Microsoft document (DOC) files are now basically formatted as XML. Unfortunately, Microsoft chooses to use its own proprietary format for XML. Sun Microsystems, on the other hand, saves documents in a standardised XML format. Since nearly everyone can read and write to Microsoft's formats, standardisation seems to be almost a reality.

Personally, I use OpenOffice, and while I love the fact that it uses compressed document files, I would never dream of e-mailing such a document to anyone else. (Hence, I submitted this review as a MS DOC file).

Of course there is a catch to using your favourite word-processor with a standard file format. Whenever I save or close this file I will be asked if I really wish to keep the MS DOC formatting. Why? Because features specific to OpenOffice will be lost in translation. This is usually a minor concern, but it doesn't hurt to experiment a little and find out what you can and cannot get away with.

Note that AU$1 is approximately US$0.8.


Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Testing Compatability
So how well do export filters work? How much is lost and translation? Are there Microsoft files and Microsoft "compatible" files? We conducted a little experiment to find out.

We imported a test file -- produced by Microsoft Word and containing a variety of text formats, fonts and column formats -- into each competitors' application. The file was converted to native format and then reconverted to "Microsoft format". We then evaluated how well each application does at reading such files.

StarOffice proved the most reliable and Corel was the worst. DOC files produced by Corel WordPerfect are uniformly mangled upon export. It also refused to read files similarly produced by Evermore or Lotus (it tried to read the file from Lotus Word Pro, but locked up during conversion). Evermore refused to read the export from Lotus.

Apart from formatting troubles associated with Corel WordPerfect and Evermore, StarOffice could read all other MS Word files and its own version was read by all other entrants.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that data produced in native format may be less reliable during conversion than in original Microsoft files. This seems to be the case with OpenOffice -- in particular I have had formatting difficulties with spreadsheet and text files converted to Microsoft format and then opened using Lotus SmartSuite. There seems to be is no guaranteed reliable method of exporting from one package to another without losing at least some of the formatting.

All of this suggests that probably nobody is interpreting the XML standards correctly, whether they are the international XML standards or Microsoft's XML standards. I am not certain whether that is by accident or design. It is also a concern that conversion of large data files can take large amounts of time -- such that you may be concerned that the program has crashed. And that might also be true!

A second file was produced using Microsoft Word and opened in each word processor. Evermore made a hash of it, but at least it opened the file which is more than can be said for Corel's WordPerfect. SmartSuite, OpenOffice and StarOffice got most of the formatting correct.

Training and support
If you are considering a software change, it is always important to note that your staff might need to be re-trained to use the new product.

Most of the applications reviewed have menu and toolbar layouts quite similar to MS Office; the most dissimilar is Lotus SmartSuite, which doesn't show much desire to bend to Microsoft's will. By default, font controls lie at the bottom of the screen in Lotus Word Pro, where they can be easily missed by those of us more familiar with its competitors. Fortunately the tool bar can be moved to the top if you prefer.


Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Evermore Integrated Office (Wuxi)
This is the new kid on the block -- hailing from China. On opening the application you might wonder whether you have opened Microsoft Office by mistake. Apart from a different logo and a recycled Microsoft "binder" on the left-hand side, it's not easy to tell the difference at first glance. The icons on the toolbars are all very nice Microsoft replicas.

Toolbars for word-processing, spreadsheets, and presentations all appear at once, with the outline of those buttons not relevant to the current document appearing in grey.

All document types are naturally saved together in a large binder file format -- keeping an entire project together in one file. A feature Microsoft abandoned. Files can be saved to Microsoft formats. Evermore includes a large selection of scientific-symbol auto-shapes and mathematical formula templates, and also a thesaurus.

Although similar to Microsoft Office superficially, it will still take some getting used to by Office users. It has its quirks, as all software does!

On a negative note, the program was inclined to fall over and refuse to start again until I rebooted the computer. Unfortunately, more than one column format cannot be supported on a single page. Being a new product we must make allowances, but it may well be better to wait before taking Wuxi-Evermore on board.

Evermore can be run under Windows or Linux, with more platforms in development. Three language versions, English, Chinese, and Japanese are available (a German version is now in development). Time will tell how well this new product competes with the market.

Product Evermore Integrated Office 2004
Price AU$530
Vendor Wuxi
Phone US (323) 264 0737
Web www.evermoresw.com
 
Interoperability
Lacks some formatting features and program stability is an issue.
Futureproofing ½
Future support and development uncertain.
ROI
Reasonable price, but lacking refinement and features.
Service
5-years support and regular updates but forum is only in Chinese at this stage.
Rating
Evermore Integrated Office (Wuxi)
Click to enlarge


Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Lotus SmartSuite (IBM)

Lotus SmartSuite continues to do its own thing with little concern for the rest of the industry. SmartSuite does not try to appear like the opposition and seems to be making little effort to even promote the product. I found the Web site, for example, particularly uninformative. One link offering more product details resulted in a message explaining that access was restricted to the requested page!

On the other hand it does have a good range of features, including database and organiser features. It doesn't include an e-mail client, but this is easily added and integrated with the organiser. Access to programs and files is via a toolbar at the top of the screen. Buttons also appear in the Windows system tray, but this can result in a lot of clutter.

The software is of average size, but it is only supported by the Windows operating system. It is able to export to Microsoft and Corel formats. Twelve language localisations are available. In many ways SmartSuite deserves to score better than it does in this review, but universal usability and compatibility is everything in today's market: SmartSuite is only supported by Microsoft Windows and it is simply too different to the competition.

Product Lotus SmartSuite 9.8.1
Price AU$476
Vendor IBM
Phone 1800 289 426
Web www.lotus.com
 
Interoperability
Good selection of format filters but not always reliable.
Futureproofing ½
Quite different user interface and lagging with newer file compatibility.
ROI
Retraining of staff could be expensive.
Service
12 months full support.
Rating
Lotus SmartSuite (IBM)
Click to enlarge




Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Microsoft Office (Microsoft)

With over 90 percent market share (in monetary terms), comparisons are always going to be made with MS Office. With its impressive array of tools and huge market share, MS Office is the natural benchmark application. Thus, it is also essential for competitors to be able to deal with MS files -- and they do with more or less success. As long as this situation remains, Microsoft sees little reason to support filters for export to other brands, but there is a limited capacity to export to some Corel and Lotus formats.

Microsoft Office is also the most expensive at AU$899 for the professional version. But it is not all that more expensive than Evermore or Corel when the extra features are considered. Microsoft includes Outlook (organiser and e-mail client) in the package, which makes it almost unique in terms of package breadth of use. Lotus is closest in this regard.

Product Microsoft Office 2003 Professional
Price AU$899
Vendor Microsoft
Phone 02 9870 2200
Web www.microsoft.com/australia
Interoperability
File formats supported by other vendors but the generosity is not reciprocal.
Futureproofing ½
The market standard and is feature rich.
ROI ½
Fairly expensive, but is a solid product.
Service ½
5-year lifecycle support, extensive Web support but phone support is at a cost.
Rating ½
Microsoft Office (Microsoft)
Click to enlarge




Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

StarOffice/OpenOffice (Sun Microsystems/OpenOffice.org)

These two packages can be easily discussed together. In some ways it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that OpenOffice is to StarOffice as MS Office (Educational) is to MS Office (Professional). OpenOffice has no free incident support and no built-in database. It comes with a slightly limited version of Software AG's database, Adabas. What's more, basic database functions can be applied to data in spreadsheets.

OpenOffice.org is a somewhat experimental application (note that v.1.1.4 is the latest stable version of OpenOffice) and has certain features not present in StarOffice -- such as more languages/localisations (45 languages, compared with 35 for MS Office and 11 for StarOffice). T he inclusion of a fairly powerful drawing application makes these products very worthy of consideration -- as does the low price.

Overall these two products have a richness and depth of features which make them quite comparable with their costly competitors -- the main failing here is the lack of long-term, individual customer support via e-mail or phone.

User files are compressed, and thus may be a third of the size of their Microsoft equivalents (depending on document size and content), but this does result in slight delays with loading and saving. Files can be readily converted to Microsoft formats with high compatibility between products. Both products operate under Windows, Solaris and Linux; only OpenOffice supports Mac OS X at this stage. Both products are frugal with regard to RAM usage.

Product OpenOffice 1.1.4
Price Free
Vendor OpenOffice.org
Phone N/A
Web www.openoffice.org
Interoperability
Good filters, especially for import.
Futureproofing
Keen volunteers will ensure future developments.
ROI
An impressive product at no cost.
Service
Lacks full e-mail/phone support but user group support is exceptional.
Rating
OpenOffice (OpenOffice.org)
Click to enlarge


Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

WordPerfect Office (Corel)

Besides the usual word processing and spreadsheeting, the professional version includes the database application, Paradox. The spelling and grammar checkers are backed by a thesaurus and the Compact Oxford dictionary. E-mail support is an added extra which has the potential to raise the price to Microsoft levels. Hopefully, large-scale communications with support centres won't be necessary. The software should be familiar to most office software users, and it comes with a very clear and concise manual.

WordPerfect Office has various modes of operation; it can be used in standard mode or Microsoft mode -- there is even a Lotus 1-2-3 mode for the spreadsheet. A pleasing application was spoiled somewhat by it's refusal to open a MS Word file with complex formatting -- WordPerfect simply locked up.

In each case the arrangement of tools and default file formats are matched to the relevant application. Thus, files can be exported to both Microsoft and Lotus formats. Font substitution is achieved according to similar font names. While WordPerfect is currently available for Windows only, a Linux version is apparently being trialled. Versions are available in five localisations.

Product WordPerfect Office 12
Price AU$569 (AU$767 with database)
Vendor Corel
Phone 02 9006 1100
Web www.corel.com
 
Interoperability ½
Emulates operation of key competitors, but import unreliable.
Futureproofing
Strong features set and has good complementary software.
ROI ½
Reasonable pricing and the interface can be in native or Microsoft Office format.
Service ½
Standard support lacking, full e-mail support at extra cost.
Rating
WordPerfect Office (Corel)
Click to enlarge



Specifications

Product Evermore Integrated Office 2004 Lotus SmartSuite 9.8.1 Microsoft Office 2003 Professional OpenOffice 1.1.4 StarOffice 7 WordPerfect Office 12
Price $530 $476 $899 Free $142.52 $569 ($767 with database)
Warranty 5 year support and updates 12 months support and upgrades 5 year “LifeCycle” support and updates Online forums, free tutorial info. etc. Online forums + 60 day phone/e-mail support Forums, paid e-mail support available, patches available online
Word processor Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Spreadsheet Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Presentations Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Database No Yes Yes No* Yes (limited)* (Prof./Edu.)
Drawing editor Autoshapes Autoshapes: presentations Autoshapes Yes Yes Autoshapes
HTML editor Export to Yes Yes Yes Yes Export to
Organiser/E-mail No Organiser integrates with existing e-mail client Yes No No No
Macro editor Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Export to PDF, HTML, MS Office HTML, MS Office, Corel HTML, XML, Corel PDF, HTML, Flash, XML, StarOffice. MS Office PDF, HTML, Flash, XML, OpenOffice. MS Office PDF, HTML, XML, MS Office, Lotus
XML No No Proprietary Yes Yes Yes
Operating system Windows 98 & Linux/RedHat 8 (Mac OSX & Solaris to come) Windows 95 & up Windows 2000 (Office:Mac 2004 available) Windows 98, Solaris, Linux, MacOSX, FreeBSB Windows 98, Solaris OE, Linux Windows 98 (Linux version being trialled)
RAM (min/recom) 128MB/ 256MB 64MB (128MB for XP) 128MB 64MB (128MB for Mac) 55MB 64MB/128MB
Drive space 350MB 293MB 410MB+ 300MB (512 for Mac) 250MB 197MB






Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

Final Words
In the end, Microsoft Office wins the match by brute force rather than finesse. This, it seems, is a recipe for short-term success. The huge Microsoft market share effectively forces competitors to aim for MS compatibility.

Corel's WordPerfect Office would rank a close second in my mind if not for its failure during several conversion incidents. The OpenOffice/StarOffice twins are similarly deserving of mention -- particularly when you consider the price advantages. These products all have very promising futures.

StarOffice has already been taken on board as the application of choice by many Indian companies (including banks) as well as government departments and military organisations. WordPerfect continues to have a devoted following amongst many members of the legal profession -- a community advantage which Corel actively fosters.

OpenOffice and StarOffice are beginning to be used wholesale by governments, in Europe, Asia and even Israel and the USA. Microsoft remains king for the moment, but how long will it last?

Sample scenario
A new business is choosing office software. The owner wants to determine whether to go with a mainstream product or whether there is any virtue in any of the cheaper alternatives.

Approximate budget: Open.
Requires: Office software for general word-processing and office administration, spreadsheets are essential and it should include presentation software and have the option of database capabilities.
Concerns: Reliability and compatibility with other offices which may be using different software. Price is worth considering, but the bottom line is getting the job done with the minimum of hassle.


Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

T&B Editor's choiceEditor's choice:
Microsoft Office


Microsoft Word continues to prove the most powerful collection of office tools on the market. In some ways it isn't far ahead of its competitors, but does have a certain edge. MS Office is the only product to come with a fully integrated organiser and e-mail client. People assume that others will have software capable of reading Microsoft files. I would have liked to have seen a proper dictionary included -- as Corel has also, an integrated drawing program that goes beyond simple "autoshapes" would be handy.

Sun's StarOffice and the OpenOffice's product proved quite reliable in file conversions to and from MS formats and are packed with features worthy of more expensive competitors. I would recommend these very highly to those on a budget. (Did I mention that I use OpenOffice all the time?)


Contents
Introduction
Testing Compatability
Evermore Integrated Office
Lotus SmartSuite
Microsoft Office
StarOffice/OpenOffice
WordPerfect Office
Specifications
Final words
Editor's choice
About RMIT

About RMIT IT Test Labs
RMIT IT Test Labs RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies. In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own -- only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager,Steven Turvey.



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