Corel's New 'Format-Neutral' WordPerfect Office X3 Update in Beta

It isn't really a new version of WordPerfect, and in more than one way, that fact is starting to show. But for the product that still purports to be the world's #2 commercial word processor, just behind Microsoft by about 85 points give or take a few, even the smallest change may as well be a monumental shift. This week, Corel released to selected beta testers an updated version of its WordPerfect Office X3 suite, which still features the Quattro Pro spreadsheet, and which now places the OpenDocument Format on an equal standing with Microsoft Word formats.

"At the end of the day, customers don't care about formats - they shouldn't have to," remarked Corel's director of product management Jason Larock in an interview with BetaNews. "I think for a consumer or small business customer, I don't want him thinking, 'Should I be ODF or should I be OOXML or WordPerfect format?' I just want him to work with his documents, work with them correctly."

For the last few editions, knowing full well a good chunk of its customer base would already be skilled in Microsoft Word, Corel engineered its word processor's user interface to optionally resemble Word 2003 (which it still refers to as "Word 2002") or Word 97.

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In an interview in January 2006 when its Office X3 edition was first released, Corel's representatives actually appeared comfortable letting WordPerfect take a backseat role in the market. No longer the standard bearer, the burden was off its shoulders, and its people openly said they were happy with letting customers decide which way the word processing winds should blow. If they should continue to blow in Microsoft's direction, then WordPerfect would follow.

But Microsoft had plans to engineer the wind in an entirely new direction, with its completely redefined "Ribbon" front end - a way of working which has split its user base, with some preferring the way it doesn't intrude with the work in front of you, and some chastising its clutter and seemingly arbitrary arrangement of functions. If Corel were to decide to adopt a Word 2007 work-alike mode, it would need to license the Ribbon's look-and-feel directly from Microsoft.

Then there is the issue which triggered the update to begin with: Corel already had a hand in the creation of ODF. But when the opportunity came for Corel to implement it in its Office X3 two years ago, it declined, citing customer disinterest. When customers come to Corel asking for it, the company said then, they'll add it.

Corel's story today is that this is what's happening now. "What's really making me excited about embracing both formats is that now we're able to have a neutral dialog with our customer. We don't have an agenda to push on either side. It's really, what are customers looking to do, and then have a discussion."

BetaNews was granted access to the ODF/OOXML beta edition of the updated WordPerfect Office X3, which was installed on a system where X3 had not been installed before. Still, the features of the beta which are supposed to embrace ODF did not even appear in our tests. For instance, we couldn't set ODF as the program's default format.

But then OOXML wasn't listed as such either, rather as "Microsoft Word," leading us to believe this is a code versioning problem with Corel rather than an omission from the product. We'll update you when we learn more.

Corel's goal, Larock told us, is to take format off the table as an issue of concern, and refocus the customer's attention on functionality and capability. Of course, that's difficult to do without somebody taking notice.

"The CIOs and the folks who are in charge of technology in enterprises are having to start to make decisions about their architectures, and what they want things to look like down the road," said Larock. "What we're trying to do is take that concern out of their minds and say that we will support either format for them, so that they can have a secure way of evolving their network going forward. There's no sense in the end user worrying...If those people aren't worried about formats, then it really becomes a feature-to-feature and workflow type of comparison, that we talk to them about."

Besides this change -- when it shows up -- there won't be much, if anything, different about the updated WordPerfect Office X3. Corel will try somehow to play that as an advantage. As Larock explained, of the top ten features Microsoft said it added to Office 2007, Corel counted eight which its Office X3 already had.

But one of the two features Corel hasn't followed up with is something like the Ribbon UI. "I think in a lot of customer implementations, the jury's still out on where that is," Larock said, "and we still provide the look-and-feel that people are used to."

He would not discount the possibility that a future version might include something ribbon-like, but that would depend, he said, on how many customers actually requested that feature. Such a feature, if added, would show up on users' Workspace Manager as an added option, amid Word 2003 (or "2002"), Word 97, two WordPerfect for Windows editions, and the classic blue-screen WordPerfect 5.1.

Corel spokesperson Greg Wood added that it may have been Microsoft that decided to steer a course away from what customers have been asking for.

"I think what you see is Microsoft deciding to go it alone," Wood told BetaNews. "Microsoft is the only one in the productivity space that's decided to take on the Ribbon look-and-feel...Corel continues to develop according to software norms. It's the expected user interface experience. It's one that people are very familiar with, and in fact, people have long considered WordPerfect Office to be a superior productivity experience as well. We take a different perspective than Microsoft Office, and we aren't really troubled by the Ribbon at all."

That's a very different story than two years ago, when Corel - with much the same product - was making a case that it was adopting a stance of similarity to and compatibility with Microsoft Office, because that - at least at the time - was what its customers were requesting.

One such customer request, Jason Larock tells us, came last year when a customer needed a way to translate its existing WordPerfect documents into a format that translated well into XML. It was experiences like that, much more than the whole ODF/OOXML debate, he said, that spurred Corel into retrofitting WordPerfect Office X3 with ODF support.

"At the end of the day," remarked Larock, "the customer got what they wanted without having to make a big architectural, foundational decision."

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