The help files in WordPerfect Office 12 lack the usual "what's new" section touting the improvements in this year's release. I can see why it's missing: This release is the least consequential upgrade I've ever used.

I can't see why an owner of either the Office 11 Corel released last year or any reasonably current version of Microsoft Office would bother paying the $150 upgrade price (Win 98 or newer required) for this bundle of WordPerfect, the Quattro Pro spreadsheet and the Presentations slide-show editor.

Nor can I see too many home users lining up to pay $300 for the full release, not when OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) provides comparable utility and better Microsoft Office file-format compatibility for free.

What I do see: A suite that once dominated the market is slowly choking on its own irrelevancy. Aside from the people who will get this software bundled with their new computers, who will rush to buy WordPerfect Office 12?

Corel itself only suggests three new features on a "reasons to buy" handout, none of them remotely persuasive. First, the Workspace Manager -- despite a name that suggests much more -- merely makes it easier to switch between the different toolbar and menu layouts that last year's release offered.

The OfficeReady program, which lets you browse through a library of precanned word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation templates, is hidden on the second CD-ROM and isn't installed by default. And since it can't be invoked from within WordPerfect, Quattro Pro or Presentations (all of which already provide shortcuts to choose from the same set of stationery), it seems unlikely to get much use anyway.

The optional Wireless Office Suite, also buried on disc 2, requires you to use Microsoft Outlook -- yes, a core component of Microsoft Office -- to get such Blackberry-ish options as access to your calendar on a cell phone.

This release of Corel's suite is touted as offering improved Microsoft file-format compatibility, but I couldn't spot this in my own tests.

Quattro Pro did fine overall, but WordPerfect didn't read two of 15 Microsoft Word files, and took as long as 50 seconds to translate those that it could read. The Presentations software was worst of all; its klutzy rendering of slides that layer background patterns, text and images left PowerPoints between ugly and unreadable.

WordPerfect Office 12 did even worse at saving files into Microsoft formats. A simple resume with a two-column layout displayed fine in Word 2003, but its hidden formatting codes appeared as visible text in Word 2000. A basic Presentations slide show appeared with incorrect margins in PowerPoint 2003.

Furthermore, until you change the settings in each application, the Corel programs will nag you to save an Office document as a Corel file, instead of making the polite, common-sense assumption that you'll want to stay with its existing format.

Corel's applications can also translate your work into HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Portable Document Format (PDF), and a new Compatibility Toolbar makes this feature's presence much more obvious -- if you know to enable this option.

My advice is to use PDF, which precisely preserves the looks of your documents. Exporting any moderately complicated WordPerfect file into HTML is begging for trouble -- that resume's layout disintegrated in the process -- while publishing Presentations files in HTML with the standard settings shrinks each slide into a thumbnail image.

Taken on their own, the individual applications in WordPerfect Office 12 can have their moments.

WordPerfect, while it still lacks the now-common ability to select multiple bits of text for all-at-once editing, displays a surprising agility with text styles. As you scroll up and down its font menu, a large-type preview shows what the next few words in a document will look like in each typeface; pause over a font and the entire document changes to show what it would look like in that new style.

As somebody who writes to a word count every day, I was also pleased to see that Corel has finally moved this command to the Tools menu.

Quattro Pro remains a decent all-purpose spreadsheet, if also the stranger in this suite. Eleven years after it was first sold in a suite with WordPerfect, Quattro Pro continues to look like the product of a separate development shop: The 3D effects in its toolbars look flatter, its menus don't use the same icons to highlight important commands, and its Options dialogue box is much more cluttered.

Presentations adds a "Show on the Go" option in this release that can export a slide show as a self-contained Windows program file. Along with WordPerfect, it can embed any custom fonts in a slide-show file, allowing another Corel user to read and edit that file without losing its appearance.

But as a whole, this suite needs major work if it's going to challenge Microsoft's hegemony effectively. Start with its grotesquely cluttered user interface -- its toolbars are littered with cryptic or meaningless icons, and its "enhanced" file dialogue boxes are uglier, more complicated and less useful than the standard Windows interface.

Better yet would be for Corel to think afresh about how people use this kind of software. How about making it a one-click procedure to put a copy of a file on your handheld organizer? Why not let multiple people add their ideas to one document at once, as if it were an instant-messaging chat? (Lest that seem impossible, a free Mac OS X text editor called SubEthaEdit does this quite nicely.) How about recognizing that many home users employ word processors as desktop publishing programs and including the necessary page-layout tools? How about adding Web-page design from the start instead of tacking it on as a file-export option?

In other words, how about making an office suite that feels a little less like work?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.