- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mark Twain once spoke of the “exaggerated” reports of his demise, and the same might be applied to Microsoft Corp.’s Office productivity suite, if only slightly. Thanks to recent events, though, it is possible to see handwriting on the wall.

Last week, Google, which apparently is bound and determined to take over the online world, added Sun’s StarOffice software to its Google Pack of free applications PC users can download. StarOffice is a productivity suite that rivals Microsoft Office’s functions of word processing, spreadsheet, database, presentations and graphics.

It’s very good, and very capable on many levels. Both the Google Pack and StarOffice run only on computers running Microsoft Windows; there’s some Google software for the Mac and OpenOffice.org offers a version of StarOffice for Mac users.

But the Mac side isn’t bereft of alternatives: in addition to the recently reviewed NisusWriter Pro, which I like, comes Apple’s own IWork ‘08, released on Aug. 7. This bundle, which retails for $79, offers new editions of the Pages word processor and Keynote presentation software, as well as Numbers, which is a basic spreadsheet. That $79 price is about 20 percent of the cost of Microsoft’s Office 2004, the “latest” software the firm has for the Mac, though a new Mac Office is expected soon.

IWork ‘08 is not the kind of robust, hard-charging office productivity suite those of us who are “knowledge workers” wrestle with on a daily basis. There are templates in Pages, and very creative ones, for letters, reports, business cards and the like. But the layouts are more “artistic” and in some cases less formal, than what you’d find in Microsoft Word. The Numbers spreadsheet can do many things, though it doesn’t incorporate all of the “macro” commands that are found in Microsoft Excel. Hence, while I could open and edit a corporate expense report form in Numbers, the Excel printout was far better since the Mac version of Excel read the Windows Excel “macros” perfectly.

The Keynote presentation program is, frankly, in a class by itself.

I’ll bet that each and every one of those PowerPoint slide shows we sit through in business would be improved just by using Keynote, which is brilliant in its simplicity and powerful in its effects. This software alone is worth the $79 IWork price tag.

And while there may be some hiccups going from Microsoft Excel to Apple’s Numbers, there’s less heartache going from IWork to Office: each component has an “export” feature that will save a file into an equivalent Microsoft format.

For those who wish to duplicate certain Microsoft Office macros in the equivalent IWork programs, I’m guessing that trial-and-error, plus the group collaboration that is the Internet today, will enable most of these.

But that’s a small price to pay for the freedom and low-price of IWork ‘08. The writing screen in Pages is remarkably uncluttered, which is nice. Adding key features such as a text box, table or chart is a click away.

There’s a lot to like in IWork, if you are a Mac user; there’s much to admire in StarOffice for PC users. Both of these might make Microsoft nervous, particularly IWork, with a very slick interface, stunning features and wallet-friendly price.

Read Mark Kellner’s tech blog at www.washingtontimes.com/blogs.