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Same as It Ever Was: ClarisWorks Office

Many folks will be pleased to hear that the new release of ClarisWorks 5.0 is the same, tightly integrated program they've always known. However, some might be disappointed, too - in many ways, it's practically the same program they've always known. For those who haven't heard of it, ClarisWorks integrates a spreadsheet, word processor, database, and drawing program into one software package.

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Whence ClarisWorks? A year and a half has passed since ClarisWorks was last updated, and the new $99 version has a trendy "ClarisWorks Office" appellation. The new name and the $49 upgrade price don't balance the handful of additions to the program - and it's not as if this release was supposed to be humdrum, either!

Earlier, Claris had announced that the next release of ClarisWorks would be an OpenDoc container, able to use parts from third parties. Such a product presented an intriguing thought: the premier integrated software application would latch on to the vanguard of software integration. Imagine doing word processing and email within the same software shell. OpenDoc might have made that possible.

Unfortunately, development along this line ended when Apple announced OpenDoc would be put into maintenance mode (see TidBITS-370). Claris looked into breaking ClarisWorks into a series of parts, too, but decided against it, according to Tom D'Arezzo, product manager for ClarisWorks. "We would actually lose some of the key differentiation of ClarisWorks: its incredible integration and overall small size," he said.


Tight integration has always been ClarisWorks' major advantage. Stand-alone applications often gobble hard disk space and RAM. With ClarisWorks, you forgo some cutting-edge features, but you can operate with less overhead.

New Features -- Of the new features, the most visible - and most hyped - is the button bar, which might remind you of the interface fad afflicting Word and WordPerfect. Play around with the button bar and you realize it's really the steroid-injected Shortcuts palette that has existed for the past several versions.

The button bar adds some functionality, if you monkey with it. By default, the bar takes up the top of your screen, too much space on my 15-inch monitor. Along the left side, I found it less obtrusive. The default buttons, though, repeat easily accessed menu commands. After fiddling with the settings, I found a set of buttons that invoke commands that ordinarily need extra keyboarding or mouse clicks. Now, instead of a waste of space, the bar is downright handy. And if you can't find anything useful to put on your button bar, you can hide it altogether.

Documents themselves have a few new features. Passwords can protect precious data from prying eyes, and files can link to other documents whether they're stored on a local hard disk, on a network, or out on the Web. One click and ClarisWorks either opens the linked file or directs your Web browser to the appropriate page. Further, you can create bookmarks inside a document, making those particular spots reachable by a mouse click. Those spots can be spreadsheet cells, graphic elements, or sections of bitmapped art, but, oddly, not database records.

Long-time users will be relieved to see that this version has a simple method for choosing a default font. In previous versions, such a basic change required users to create a stationery file, with all the necessary settings, saved in a specific folder. That method gave great control but complicated simple tasks, such as setting the default font of converted text files or database fields. Now you can select a default font in the Preferences window. It works most of the time, though new text blocks inside word processing documents - for sidebars, as an example - default to Helvetica. Strangely, new text blocks in graphic environments default to the user-specified font.

Claris also seems to have worked the kinks out of its style sheet scheme. Many users objected to version 4's method in which style attributes seemed to compound on text, but turning off unwanted attributes could be frustratingly complex. This version seems much more predictable. Claris added a "Compound Styles" command that mimics ClarisWorks 4, so the three people who mastered the previous scheme can feel at home.

Other additions include new brush effects in the paint module and named ranges in spreadsheets. Claris has expanded the number of characters for database fields from 500 to 1,000, although that's still too limiting for many jobs. Databases can now have multimedia fields that accept graphics, movies, and sounds. Multimedia fields can hold an entire text frame, which gets around the 1,000-character limit, but that's only good for storing text, rather than editing or even reading it.

New to 5.0 is an equation editor that works as a separate application and uses the Symbol font to construct equations. Apple events let you create and edit equations in the equation editor after they've been inserted in a ClarisWorks document.

The best addition may be AppleScript support, even if it's far from perfect. You can run scripts from a menu inside the program, and ClarisWorks itself has a better-than-average AppleScript dictionary. Unfortunately, Claris has included a paltry set of example scripts, ClarisWorks is not recordable, and I've worn a bald spot scratching my head trying to puzzle out some intricacies of ClarisWorks scripting. But, even a little scriptability is better than none at all.

Also in the Box -- Another plus is the abundance of stationery (more than 14 MB worth) and assistants (weighing in at 2.5 MB). Claris has included 64 templates from JIAN, a publisher targeting small businesses. I'd rather roll my own most of the time, but considering that many users are probably getting their first entree to computing with ClarisWorks, I can't help but look at these additions positively.


However, the skimpy manual Claris provides is another story. It barely covers the basics, and pages are sprinkled with notes directing users to the online help. Unfortunately, there's not much depth online either. Claris might better serve its customers by providing a coupon for a decent third-party ClarisWorks book. The least they could do is eliminate the annoying QuickHelp software and translate the information into ClarisWorks documents. Document linking and bookmarks would provide the functionality of hypertext. As native ClarisWorks files, they could be more useful in explaining the details of database searches or spreadsheet functions, for example.

In addition to linking to the Web, ClarisWorks sports other spiffy "Internet Enabling" features. One of the button bars provides easy access to your email software and Web browser. The full Office product ships with Internet access software and Claris Home Page Lite for editing Web pages. ClarisWorks can translate its documents into HTML, even converting embedded spreadsheets into HTML tables.

In Conclusion -- Claris always has touted ClarisWorks' tight integration and its scant needs for RAM and disk space. In this iteration, they've revved up the marketing, calling it "all the office you need." For folks at the shallow end of the power pool, it's a perfect match. Even people with more powerful systems can appreciate the program's simplicity and the wealth of templates. I've used ClarisWorks almost from its inception, and it's been nothing but a workhorse. Nothing about 5.0 would make me think otherwise.

But I wonder how relevant ClarisWorks is today. Apple-branded Macs sell for less than $1,600 with 32 MB of RAM and 3 GB hard disks. Clones (what few remain) sell for less than that. These machines - and their cousins from the past few years - are forgiving to Claris's bloated competitors. So long as the hardware can handle Microsoft Office comfortably, I doubt many people will consider lean software much of a plus.

[On the other hand, many older Macs are still in use, particularly among new users whose first Macs were passed down from more experienced family members and among organizations that cannot afford new computers. For these users, products like ClarisWorks remain key tools. Also, ClarisWorks is one of the few remaining competitors to Microsoft Office for the Macintosh, and the industry needs competition to fuel differentiation and innovation. Finally, given the environmental costs of throwing out old computers, it's great to see new software that doesn't require a newer machine. -Tonya]

ClarisWorks 5 requires a 68020 processor or better (including PowerPC systems), System 7.0.1 or higher, 18 to 55 MB of disk space, at least 8 MB of RAM, and a CD-ROM drive. You can download (3.5 MB) a feature-limited trial version of ClarisWorks 5.0.

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Claris Corporation -- 800/544-8554 -- 408/727-8227
800/800-8954 (fax) -- <>


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