SEATTLE - It may lack the hype and glitter of Windows, but the new version of Microsoft's best-selling suite of business applications unveiled Thursday certainly attracts the money.
Office 97 is the latest blend of Microsoft's word processing, spreadsheet, database, graphics presentation and desktop organization software. This version has been extensively revamped to work with the Internet.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, marking the start of retail sales of the new products, called them "a centerpiece of Microsoft's Internet strategy."
"Over a year ago, we talked about embracing and extending the Internet. This year, the theme is to go beyond embracing the Internet to take the leadership through innovation," he told about 1,000 reporters and industry leaders Thursday at New York's Lincoln Center.
The event was staid compared to the worldwide circus-themed extravaganza with the Rolling Stones and Jay Leno to launch Windows 95, or the incessant drumbeat of how the Internet is going to change humankind.
But Office is no less a core product for the world's largest producer of software. It holds an 80 percent or better share of its market, and an estimated 55 million computers use one or more of its component programs.
IBM-Lotus Development's SmartSuite and Corel's WordPerfect Suite and Office Professional account for nearly all the rest.
Office will provide the bulk of this year's estimated $5 billion in annual sales for Microsoft's applications division, which supplies about half of the company's revenue, says Dennis Tevlin, the division's director of product marketing.
About 500,000 copies have been ordered by retailers, Mr. Tevlin said, and about 3 million have been ordered for corporate use.
Those numbers aside, Office 97 won't be an overnight sensation, industry analysts say. Its prime market, large corporations looking to standardize business software, don't make such decisions overnight.
"It takes a long time for businesses to upgrade," says Dan Lavin, an analyst at Dataquest in San Jose.
As an example, Boeing Co. already makes widespread use of earlier versions of Office or its component programs on its 65,000 desktop and workstation computers, says Joe Lussier, Boeing's manager of software architecture and standards.
But Mr. Lussier says Boeing will make an extensive technical analysis of Office 97 before it decides whether it makes economic sense to upgrade.
Office 97 again bundles the Excel spreadsheet, Word word processor, Access database and PowerPoint graphics presentation programs, as in previous Office versions. It adds Microsoft Outlook, an information manager that organizes electronic mail, contacts, appointments, to-do lists and other workday tasks.
Increasingly, Mr. Tevlin says, it will be where users start work as projects become more collaborative and companies embrace e-mail, the Internet and in-house "intranets" to get jobs done.
Office 97 has been extensively reworked to use the Internet, with tools for the World Wide Web embedded throughout. Also new is Office Assistant, which uses animated characters, including a midget Einstein, to provide help on Office's thousands of functions.
Ease of use has been a big concern, Mr. Tevlin said. The program is so big (191 megabytes in its largest version) and broad (Que Corp.'s book on how to master it runs 780 pages) that discovering a function can be an adventure. In fact, one-fourth of customer calls to a Microsoft "wish line" recommending new Office features suggested functions that were already in the software, an indication that users didn't know how to find it.
That huge capability has been scorned as "bloatware," with skeptics wondering who would ever have time to use all those functions and still operate a business.
"The challenge for us is to deliver all that without complexity," Mr. Tevlin said.
Office 95, the previous version, has been criticized as a "placeholder," not that much different from its predecessor and brought out mainly to accompany Windows 95.
For this new version, Mr. Tevlin said, "We really gave it our all. We invested close to $250 million and had about 750 people in design, development and testing."
Office 97 requires Windows 95 or the Windows NT operating system for high-end computers and networks.
But despite all the Windows 95 hype, it and Windows NT were only running on 20 percent of corporate desktop computers by the end of 1996, said Eric Brown, analyst at Forrester Research.
This year, though, that figure is expected to soar to 50 percent and to 85 percent by the end of 1998, as the wait-and-see corporations migrate to the more powerful operating systems, Mr. Brown said.
"Office 95 has had lackluster results," Mr. Brown said. "Office 97 will have different results because it's really a different product playing into a different market."
Here's a quick look at Microsoft's Office 97 software package, which goes on sale Thursday:
WHAT'S IN IT:
Five software programs for office work: Word, a word processor; Excel, a spreadsheet program; Access, a database; PowerPoint, a graphics program for slides and other presentation materials; and Outlook, an information manager that combines e-mail, scheduling, contacts, to-do lists and access to documents.
Elements of each program work together; for example, data from Access can be plugged into a Word document, and figures from an Excel spreadsheet can be transformed into a PowerPoint graphic.
In addition, Office 97 has Internet Explorer, Microsoft Camcorder and Photo Editor, new drawing tools, plus hundreds of images, sound effects, templates and graphics.
- Adds Outlook, the desktop information manager.
- Geared throughout to create and use material for the Internet or for in-house corporate "intranets."
- Office Assistant, animated characters that offer suggestions and other help.
- Menus and toolbars have been revamped.
- More tools for customizing programs.
- Windows 95 or Windows NT version 3.51 Service Pack 5 (an interim Windows NT release) or later.
- Minimum Intel 486-33 processor or equivalent; the more power the better.
- Multimedia capability to use sound, graphics and video.
- A modem, electronic mail program and Internet service provider, if necessary, for e-mail and Internet access.
- 8 megabytes RAM to run applications individually, except 12 MB to run Access; more memory needed to run additional applications simultaneously. For Windows NT Workstation, 16 MB to run individual applications, more to run programs simultaneously.
- 73 to 191 megabytes hard disk space for professional edition, with 121 MB a typical installation. For standard edition, 60-167 MB, with 102 MB typical.
- Standard and Small Business editions, estimated retail for new users $499; upgrades from non-Microsoft software, $249; upgrade for Office users, $209.
- Professional edition, estimated retail for new users $599; upgrades from non-Microsoft software, $349; upgrade for Office users, $309.
- Developer edition (out March 1997), estimated retail for new users $799;
upgrades from non-Microsoft software, $539; upgrade for Office users, $499.