We've come to expect office suites to be disk-eating monsters that do everything conceivable. Corel's WordPerfect Suite 7, for example, can swallow over 200Mb. But Java has turned thinking upside-down. Can the office suite be divided into small components to be pulled down to a networked computer? Java Office is the first attempt to apply Java to a major application.
The review is based on beta code available for evaluation on Corel's Web site. And even at this early stage it's impressive.
Firstly, Java makes the suite platform independent. Wherever Java runs, so too can Corel Java Office. Initially this may be more of a benefit to Corel than a specific purchaser, but it leaves the gate open to a wider choice of desktop machines (subject to the usual support cost arguments).
Perhaps more significant to the corporate is that this suite is client-server. Most application code executes on your PC or NC, but features such as filing, printing and spell checking are handled centrally. Even the application originates on the server, making upgrading a much simpler exercise than with a fully PC-based application.
The first real difference with Java Office is getting it to run. The most likely initial vehicle will be a Java-enabled browser. Few people want to build their own application from scratch, so most are likely to use a default HTML document like the one provided in the Java Office beta.
This gives you a desktop to store files, a view onto a wider world of data, and icons for the principle applications. Of course, you are now really working with generic documents and dropping in components, but every document has to start somewhere. The user interface is smart and has flat toolbars reminiscent of the latest Windows offerings. It's generally very intuitive, though there are a number of concerns that I'll come to later.
Start a new WP document and you are faced with a screen of familiar controls.
Timing is practically meaningless at this stage, given the combination of beta code and Netscape Navigator's Java handling, but it did take a similar time to running full-blown WordPerfect from hard disk. I would expect major advances in speed, though, before this runs over the network.
At the moment word processing features are comparable with a Works-style word processor.
Though the Java approach makes introduction of new components much less heavy duty than OLE, so embedding a spreadsheet or a graph isn't such a strain on your system. Server-based features like spell checking aren't available yet, and although Java Office can save files locally, this isn't working in Netscape. Even so, typing was smooth and formatting controls did as expected, even if the font shifted between Courier and Times Roman of its own accord now and again.
The spreadsheet is Quattro Pro. This isn't a toy and offers an effective range of functions and a few power controls such as sorting and auto-summation from the toolbar, but of course many fancy features are missing. Graphing is simple to use and provides a good range of popular chart formats, including some of the trendy 3D shaped objects. For the moment, the presentation component isn't ready, but Java Office already has a PIM. Unlike the other two, this appears in a separate window. The PIM is fairly cursory so far, but includes a basic schedule, an address book, a notepad, and an Email client. Group scheduling is on the way too.
While much of the user interface of Java Office is excellent, with effective toolbars and tooltips complementing the space-saving concealed menus, there are some problems.
A browser eats up an awful lot of screen furniture. I'd be surprised if I had more than half the screen to type in.
I desperately missed right mouse menu interaction with objects. Quattro Pro introduced this approach. It's very frustrating not being able to right click a cell and change its appearance.
Similarly, I hadn't realised how much I used drag-and-drop until I lost it. Particularly confusing for non-technical users is the distinction between the browser's controls and those of Java Office. There will be plenty of errors as people try to save files from the browser's File menu, use the browser's back and forward buttons to move between documents and so forth. Of course, you don't have to use a browser if you have other Java support, but many will.
This lack of interaction with the environment was also obvious with cut and paste, which only works within Java Office. While NC users may stick to Java, most others won't. There's going to be similar confusion over fonts; Java Office can't see those loaded on the PC. User interface wasn't always consistent either - tabs didn't move you from field to field in the Email part of the PIM.
The other problem that Java Office users will face is missing features.
While it's true than few people use all the facilities of an office suite, the subset varies.
Take word processing, for example. In a magazine office, word counts are used all the time - not available. Many companies use macros. Yes, you can provide your own Java, but that's for techies - what about recording and replaying macros? Nope. If I moved to Java Office tomorrow, the thing I'd miss most is spell-as-you-go. It beats the hell out of "now let's check the document" because you actually use it. And I'd pine for an outliner.
Then there's mailmerge (or rather there isn't). Niggles? No, things I use all the time. There's a balance to be struck: the advantages will be seen by the MIS department; if users are to be satisfied too they need to keep favourite features.
Is this a viable alternative to the PC-based suite? Definitely. Many companies run conventional office software from servers, and it's no fun.
I've watched a client start a word processor on a fast Pentium, and because it was running off the LAN, I was able to open my ancient 486/25 laptop, run the same package and get going before the Pentium could move a muscle.
Traditional applications are not designed to run down a wire.
I won't deny that I am concerned about the backward steps in user interface and certain key functions, but these are early days and Java Office is remarkably good considering. If the "you don't need all that functionality" argument was valid, perhaps more corporates would be using Works-style cheapos, but I am convinced that client-server and central updates will have widespread appeal.
What's impossible to say yet is how flexible Java Office can be. Will it be possible to operate from a docked laptop, then continue to work with an on-PC server when detached? Will there be options for remote workers using telephone lines to connect occasionally? What happens when the network goes down?
In Corel's FAQ there's the rather disingenuous statement: "A user will likely be in much better shape if the server went down as opposed to their standalone PC! Server-side documents will be subject to the normal (usually daily) backup procedures conducted by MIS." While it's true that backup will benefit, it's less clear what will happen to a partly completed document, and whether the user can continue to work when the network is down. After all, most networks go down much more frequently than a PC. Though these are real issues, they will get answered.
For several years now, the response to new office suites has been: "It's good, users of older versions will want to upgrade, but it's not going to tempt anyone away from the opposition." Corel has found a lever that might move the earth.
Java Office beta is downloadable from the Corel site: www.corel.com.
Final product is due in mid-March. Corel is yet to establish a pricing strategy.
VERDICT: Corel Java Office
- Small and tight
- Basic functionality good
- Client-server model
- Central upgrades
- Interface flaws
- Missing functionality
- Connection flexibility issues.
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