- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

Microsoft Corp. and Corel Corp. have released Beta, or preview, versions of the next generation of "office suites," the word processing-spreadsheet-database-presentations combinations that are the fundamental programs of most business computer users.

At the same time, Microsoft is displaying "Whistler," the first Beta of a new consumer operating system, which I think is rather astonishing.

Corel will begin public trials of its new WordPerfect Office 2002 in January 2001. The program is stronger with the addition of miniature versions of dictionaries from the Oxford University Press, and a host of other improvements all added to the program's staple WordPerfect, Quattro Pro spreadsheet and Corel Presentations graphics programs.

Also improved is the Corel Central personal information manager, which will include capabilities for group scheduling useful in a networked office and an e-mail program that supports HTML-style e-mails, the ones that look like Web pages when you open them.

While Corel has yet to provide a copy of the Beta software to test, a demonstration by Dave Ludwick, product development director, showed its WordPerfect component has rather neat formatting capabilities. For example, when the font selection menu is opened, the user can see the document text change as the cursor is maneuvered over each typeface. A click secures the typeface change.

Besides that, a 3-D "rendering engine" on the spreadsheet allows for creating fancy effects when producing graphs and charts. And the presentation software provides greater ability to publish slide shows in Web formats. Corel also promises that the product will have increased compatibility with Microsoft's PowerPoint. More information should be available soon at www.corel.com.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is already passing around copies of its Office 10 Beta software. The program offers nice improvements to Word, Excel and Outlook. (I've not yet tried PowerPoint and haven't used Microsoft's Access database.)

The programs tested seem to be more intuitive than earlier versions. They offer better "auto-completion" options. They also make it easier for users to see what they're doing, as, say, when pasting a block of copy in a document.

The devices that do this are called "smart tags," and they appear when pasting in text, or when an auto-correction is performed. Hover the mouse over the tag, and various options are presented.

The "smart tags" also can be context-sensitive. Previous versions of Word and Excel were smart enough to recognize Internet Web addresses, or URLs, and e-mail names, and then assign an appropriate link. When the link was clicked on, it would be activated from within the document.

The new programs, Word 10 and Excel 10, extend this user-friendliness to include information from Microsoft Outlook or the Web, allowing inclusion of names, dates, addresses, phone numbers, places and stock symbols. The firm says that because these Smart Tags are extensible, organizations can create their own names, dates and such. In other words, it's possible to link information in a document to a corporate directory, customer database or other source, provided there is a local-area or Internet network connection, and the user has permission to use that information.

These are early days for Office 10, and me, and there will be bumps in the road, to be sure. One already appeared when my e-mail "in box" was ruined thanks to a bug that has yet to be identified. Still, the promise offered by the new software should make up for such flaws. As developments progress, I'll report them here.

Finally, Microsoft is taking steps to make life easier for home computer users with a new operating system code-named "Whistler."

Whistler will be the next consumer-focused version of Windows. It is based on the code of Windows 2000, the "industrial strength" operating system introduced to business users earlier this year.

Whistler is cooler than Windows 2000: the Start menu can be customized and the interface is much more intuitive even than Windows ME, my current favorite among Microsoft systems.

Like Windows 2000, Whistler seems more stable than older Windows products. Perhaps the system's best feature, though, will be its capacity to let users create and segregate different users on a single computer. By doing this, parents can control what children access via the Internet and keep younger hands away from, say, the family checkbook or tax programs. And, Whistler features multitasking capabilities to let more than one user session run at a time.

• Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com.

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