WordPerfect fights back

It's Microsoft Office's world -- WordPerfect just lives in it. That's the humbling but realistic admission that Corel will make with the next version of its office suite. And no wonder: According to the latest market studies conducted by Dataquest, eight out of ten suite buyers now choose Microsoft Office.

On the basis of such grim statistics, WordPerfect Office 2000 (the new suite's name) will not try to match Microsoft Office 2000 feature for feature when the rival suites debut in the coming months (both packages are expected to ship in the spring of 1999). Instead, Corel says, it will concentrate on low-key but practical improvements that speed up common tasks and make existing features easier to use. And in a nod to market realities, the new version will help users collaborate smoothly with co-workers, clients, and friends who use Microsoft Office. Judging from our preview of an early version of the suite at Corel's Ottawa headquarters, the refinements could keep contented WordPerfect fans happy and dissuade wavering ones from jumping ship.

Parlez-vous Microsoft?

Given MS Office's market dominance, its file formats are becoming a computing lingua franca. That's why Corel is working hard to make importing and exporting files between WordPerfect and Word, Quattro Pro and Excel, and Presentations and PowerPoint easier and more accurate. For example, let's say an Excel file you're importing contains formatting that Quattro Pro does not support. The new version of Quattro may be able to silently preserve the formatting so it can be reinstated when the file is exported back to MS Office. Corel will also add basic support for Visual Basic for Applications, MS Office's scripting language. (The suite's existing scripting tool, PerfectScript, will remain intact.) The Corel suite's own file formats, except for Quattro Pro's, won't change. Quattro Pro needs updating to ensure that it is compatible with large Excel workbooks.

The gotcha: MS Office 2000 will support alternative file formats that meld HTML and XML; documents saved in those formats will supposedly keep their formatting, whether they're opened in an MS Office app or a Web browser. But until Corel adds support for these new file formats -- which it will eventually -- folks who buy its office suite can't use them. At least they'll have company: MS Office users who don't upgrade to Office 2000 face the same dilemma.

So what else is new?

In addition to making WordPerfect Office 2000 more compatible with MS Office 2000, Corel is introducing a bunch of small improvements. Some of these will appear in multiple applications. To access a real-time preview of formatting changes, for example, you just hover the mouse pointer over a selection on the font list; your document will temporarily adopt that font. An autoscroll feature, like a software version of the thumbwheel on Microsoft's IntelliMouse, will let you zip through documents with a minimum of mousework. And as in MS Office 2000, an install-as-you-go option will allow you to start with a minimal installation of the suite and add features on the fly.

In the realm of Web capabilities, Corel is adding an existing third-party product to the suite: Trellix Corporation's Trellix, a well-regarded Web publishing tool that automates the task of turning business documents into easy-to-navigate Web sites. At press time, Corel could provide only rough details of how Trellix will be integrated; it will probably be able to read WordPerfect documents, apply formatting and navigational controls, then convert the documents into HTML files for posting on the Web or on an intranet.

But while it's hello Trellix, it's good-bye Netscape Communicator: The Netscape browser suite, integrated into WordPerfect Suite 8, won't be back in the new version. Instead, Corel will strive to make its suite work well with whatever Web browser and e-mail apps you own. Since both Communicator and Internet Explorer are free and most users have a favourite, this arrangement makes perfect sense.

Like its predecessor, WordPerfect Office 2000 will offer integrated voice recognition -- something that Microsoft does not plan to add to its new suite. Corel's upgrade will use version 3.0 of Dragon Systems' technology, and it may add voice recognition to some other suite features, such as Presentations' outliner mode. The speech features will be included in the suite's Professional Edition but will cost extra if you buy the Standard version.

Corel is still trying to attract budget-conscious shoppers by keeping its prices low. Both Corel and Microsoft say upgrade prices will be comparable to current pricing. WordPerfect Suite 8 starts at $199 for a competitive upgrade to the Standard Edition; in contrast, a competitive upgrade to Microsoft Office 97 Standard sets you back around $379.

Corel's fate

But feature sets and prices aside, one other buying consideration looms large. For the last couple years, Corel has racked up a string of unprofitable quarters; suffered a serious decline in its stock price; and stretched its resources increasingly thin, on everything from network computers to CD-ROM games. As a result, WordPerfect users have had cause to wonder about the company's stability.

But Corel is back on track, believes Duncan Stewart, an analyst at Tera Capital, a Toronto investment company. "They've focused and cut ridiculous amounts of spending....Their fiscal problem is over." Jeffrey Tarter, editor of industry newsletter Softletter, is also guardedly upbeat. "Corel has a strong value proposition," he says. "WordPerfect Suite is a reasonable package, and reasonable people can buy it."

But some buyers may have an ulterior motive for choosing WordPerfect over Microsoft's Office. "A lot of people just don't want to use Microsoft products," says Stewart. For this vocal minority, the overarching virtue of WordPerfect may be simply that Bill Gates has nothing to do with it. And that's one feature Microsoft's new suite won't deliver.

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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