Software giants battle to taste suite success

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SALES of bundled software 'suites' - combined packages of word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation and database programs - are booming.

The statistics are remarkable: 60 per cent of Microsoft's UK software applications revenue now comes from suites, the company said last week. So do about half the sales of Lotus, its main rival.

Not surprisingly, a war looks set to take place between the software companies battling for a share of this burgeoning business. But are the bargains more apparent than real? Critics charge that suites are a con for two reasons.

First, the programs in them do not talk to each other any more than separately purchased programs would, they say. This was probably true a year or so ago, but newer releases are generally accepted to offer a greater degree of cross- program communication.

Should a user today wish to incorporate a spreadsheet in a graphics presentation slide, and then include that slide in a word-processed document, they can. More complex requirements can still be difficult.

Critics of suites also query the cost-effectiveness of paying for bundled software applications that the user might never need. Secretaries just need a word-processing program, the critics charge, not up to half a dozen other applications.

Oliver Roll, suite product manager at Microsoft, rejects this. Microsoft's research shows that 80 per cent of users do in fact use the presentation program included in the company's suite - and he adds that such criticism is precisely why Microsoft has two versions of its Office suite product, priced pounds 100 apart.

Only the higher-priced 'professional' version includes its Access database product, which he accepts that the typical user might not need. And clearly, he says, most users will use the word-processing and spreadsheet elements, because that is why they bought a suite in the first place.

The third player in the suites market, WordPerfect, has been dogged by its inability to offer complementary programs to sit alongside its main word- processing program. It may now have achieved this through the merger with a networking software company, Novell, completed last month.

As part of the complex deal, the combined companies purchased from a rival, Borland, the acclaimed Quattro Pro spreadsheet program, previously offered by WordPerfect on a co-operative basis with Borland. The company has now announced a fresh assault on the suites market with a new product, PerfectOffice, scheduled for launch this autumn.

David Godwin, UK general manager, is unperturbed by the low market share of the company's existing suite - somewhere between 3 and 5 per cent - recognising that it was a late entrant to the market and did not have the right programs.

As the market matures, he says, products must go beyond integration at the individual computer level to achieve integration over networks. WordPerfect's merger with Novell will enable it to profit from Novell's acknowledged expertise in this area. The next stage will be 'select your own suite' products, where much larger suites of software will be bundled on CD-Rom disks.

Users can then pay for and use only those bits they actually need. Should they need any more, a phone call to WordPerfect quoting a credit card number will provide the code word to unlock the required part of the suite - already present on the CD-Rom.

The battlelines are being drawn for the lion's share of an increasingly lucrative and sophisticated market.