The two newest releases in the office-suite market come via strange routes.
One comes from Evermore Software, a Wuxi City, China-based newcomer to this category; its debut in the U.S. market is a suite for Windows and Red Hat Linux.
The other comes from a slightly better-known company, Microsoft -- but it doesn't run on Windows.
Evermore Integrated Office 2004 (Win 98 or newer/Red Hat Linux 2.4 or newer, $149 at www.evermoresw.com) offers an uncanny resemblance to Microsoft Office 2003, despite having been written in the cross-platform Java language. EIO's developers have all but committed identity theft in duplicating the appearance of Microsoft's suite, down to the toolbar icons.
But where Microsoft's suite consists of linked word processor, spreadsheet and slide-show programs, EIO runs as a single monolithic application -- an approach that might work in busy offices but is unnecessary at home and causes a blizzard of buttons, menus and toolbars.
Evermore makes an even more befuddling departure from convention in its file management. You don't start a letter, a spreadsheet or a presentation in EIO, you create a "binder" and then populate it with different documents. (Hint: Clicking the "new document" toolbar icon makes a new binder, while clicking the arrow next to it and selecting a file type adds a document to the current binder.)
The tools provided in EIO for writing, calculating and slide shows work fine in general, with a few bizarre irritants -- for instance, its word processor can't properly display "smart quotes," the kind that tilt left and right before and after quoted text.
As for the vital issue of Microsoft compatibility, Evermore works well except when it fails awkwardly. Some Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents came across with stunning fidelity, but others lost tab stops and bullet points; a simple expense-report spreadsheet caused EIO to yield a typo-ridden error message.
EIO files converted to Microsoft formats showed comparable glitches. Fortunately, the program also can export documents with all details intact as Portable Document Format files.
At a price of $149 (including only a year's support), Evermore is no bargain, not when Microsoft discounts its own Office to $149 in a student and teacher edition sold to the general public.
That attractive pricing is also available for Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac ($399 standard edition, $149 student and teacher edition, Mac OS X 10.2.8 or newer). Better yet, anybody who bought the old Office v.X after Jan. 5 can upgrade for free instead of $239.
Office 2004 is the finest Microsoft suite in years. Unlike the Windows-only Office 2003, which packed in business-use tools that required office networks running Microsoft server software, Office 2004 emphasizes consumer convenience and usability.
The most important addition is the Project Center, a feature of Office's Entourage application that tracks e-mail messages, contacts, tasks, appointments and Office files related to a particular topic. This does what Evermore's binders fail to do -- make it easy to coordinate work among multiple documents.
Entourage matches Outlook, its equivalent in Office for Windows, in no longer displaying pictures in incoming e-mail automatically, which stops spammers from tracking your reading habits. But it's absurdly simpler than Outlook.
For example, when you set up e-mail accounts (POP, IMAP, Hotmail and Microsoft Exchange services are supported), it's smart enough to fill out settings for such popular providers as EarthLink automatically.
Unfortunately, Entourage still doesn't tie into Mac OS X's system-wide Address Book database. And its Palm synchronization doesn't support the upgraded contacts and calendar programs on newer Palm handhelds.
Word 2004, for its part, adds a clever new tabbed-notebook format that makes it simple to jot down notes in outline form, inserting voice recordings as you go. It's like a radically simplified version of Microsoft's OneNote that comes for free, not $199 extra.
Still unchanged: Word's off-and-on habit of trying to format your text for you.
Word, along with other Office 2004 programs, also includes a compatibility-report function that warns of fonts, styles or embedded content that may not work in earlier Office releases.
Excel 2004's new page-layout view eases setting up printouts and adding headers and footers. "Smart button" pop-up icons, easier to spot than their equivalents in Excel for Windows, warn you of formula errors and suggest otherwise hidden options.
PowerPoint 2004 adds a helpful presentation view that shows the current, previous and next slides and the elapsed time of the slide show. Instead of being buried in a settings screen, it's now right in the View menu.
Office 2004 supports Mac OS X's Aqua interface with a lot of style. For example, its formatting palettes fade to partial transparency after a few minutes of inactivity; sweep the cursor over one, and it becomes solid again.
But the fundamental appeal of Office 2004 isn't visual tricks like that. It's such thoughtful touches as the way those palettes keep the screen uncluttered by showing only functions relevant to the current material, its print dialogues automatically show a thumbnail preview of each printed page, and the clean layouts of its preferences windows can be deciphered by untrained humans.
It's just too bad this doesn't run on a Windows machine -- in particular, on the PCs used by the developers of Office for Windows, who now have some catching up to do.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at email@example.com.