Ottawa (Canada) - Now on its thirteenth edition, the brand of word processor that at one time commanded an industry, today must humbly find its way in a market long ago seized by Microsoft. WordPerfect - a topic about which many pages of computer magazines have been expended, and I wrote a book - bears very little resemblance today to the highly respected, if somewhat overrated, document processor of the 1980s. No, right out of the box, what it resembles - in large measure - is today's Microsoft Word. And Corel, the product's current manufacturer, has no problem with that at all.
"We acknowledge the fact that we're not the standard-shapers in the industry," Richard Carriere, Corel's general manager for office productivity, told TG Daily. "So instead of trying to impose different ways of doing things [upon our users], we just want to make sure that we offer a good alternative to those ways to work...at a good price, and that we offer also, based on our read of user needs, some unique features that really make our suite very attractive to them."
Those user needs Carriere and his company are reading apparently tell them Microsoft Word is what's attractive to users. So Corel has set out to follow along just behind, with its new version X3 released just this week.
In the two-and-one-half years since Corel was purchased by a private concern, and restructured into a privately held company, Carriere said, it divested itself of arguably less important businesses like CD replication and Linux, to devote itself entirely to producing software applications. So when Corel launched a rededicated WordPerfect Office 12 in April 2004, he added, the product's focus changed to address the needs of the person who was already prepared to purchase Microsoft Office anyway, but would be comfortable with an alternative - especially if it cost a little less.
But as WordPerfect acquired a sharper focus on the Microsoft Office buyer, the product ended up following the market leader, not just on the best-seller list but in terms of features and functionality as well. As a result, Carriere freely admitted, Corel is content with letting Microsoft discover what it is the word processor user wants, and then to find a way to provide that same functionality in a compatible package, for an attractive price. "We're not the standard-shaper," he told us. "We're certainly not the ones that are married to any specific look and feel, or format. Our goal is to offer the user interface, the way to work, the file format and the features that the market wants, [rather than] try to drive the users in one direction or another."
Microsoft is continuing to pursue its plan of radically redesigning its upcoming Office 12 suite, to be released most likely in concert with the new Windows Vista operating system later this year. The appearance of these applications will change drastically, as that company experiments with replacing such common functionality features as the menu bar itself with a set of tear-off palettes, each of which contains a cluster of gadgets.
By 2007, it may end up that WordPerfect X3 looks more like Microsoft Word than Microsoft Word. This could put Corel's product in an interesting position, of actually upholding the most common usage methodology, for companies that don't want to suffer through all the retraining expenses and hassles that the new Office 12 may require. It's an interesting opportunity for WordPerfect to make a bold play.
Whether Corel is bold enough to make that play, however, is not too evident from the strategy Richard Carriere shared with us Thursday afternoon. "Our goal is to offer choice, it's not to frame people in their ways," he told us. "If our current version, X3, looks more like Microsoft Office than Microsoft itself, and for all sorts of training costs and familiarity reasons, users prefer that, well, of course, we'll be very happy to continue to offer that mode."
But a player like Microsoft, Carriere said, is in a position to be able to try radically altering its premiere product, and history will determine whether the company is successful. "What we can do," he added, "we will see how the market reacts to this." Built into X3, he revealed, is a feature called Workplace Manager where the user can configure her own environment, perhaps changing it from a Microsoft Word-like mode to a more "classic" WordPerfect-like mode. "We have no plan for scrapping the current modes in which people can work," he stated, "and we can add a new user mode at the option of the user, looking more like whatever Microsoft [Office] will come with. We're not excluding that. It will really depend on the acceptance by the market." So if users accept Microsoft's new look-and-feel, they can just as easily accept it in a future upgrade to WordPerfect.
The other part of Corel's compatibility play concerns WordPerfect's file formats, and here is where things get really interesting. The WordPerfect document format is no longer an industry standard. So Corel's plan to demonstrate its adaptability, for now, is to support two other widely used file formats: Microsoft's, of course, and Adobe's PDF.
For those who were expecting the list to be longer, you may have to settle for some disappointment. Corel told us today the company has no plans, immediate or future, to support the OpenDocument XML-based format brought to the spotlight by Sun Microsystems and open-source developers. This is why the careful wording of this quote from Richard Carriere's interview with us, is so critical: "Our commitment is to offer very pro-active compatibility in the industry for those file formats that are relevant."
Who determines what's relevant? At one time, Corel would have argued, the industry at large represents the user community at large. It actually championed the initial development of the OpenDocument format. But that was before the company's buyout and restructuring. (Skeptics will point out that Microsoft purchased a 25% stake in Corel. Yet that happened in 2000, while the company was still public, and still a Linux manufacturer. The restructuring and refocusing began in 2003.)
Is the new Corel somehow set in its ways against the OpenDocument format? Not entirely. If you can overlook the steel bars, the padlocks, and the duct tape on the door, you'll notice Richard Carriere left it open just a crack. We asked him about Microsoft's plan to deploy its own XML-based file format for its Office 12 suite, and whether such a move would prompt Corel to follow suit. We learned that Microsoft may, in the end, be Corel's gauge for the success of XML file formats just as much as for user interfaces. "If users adopt these new file formats - and we'll see if Microsoft is successful, but if they are - you bet that we'll be very pro-active to offer our own tools to go in and save these formats."
So conceivably, if Microsoft were to deploy an import/export filter for OpenDocument, and users found that useful, Corel might do the same later on. But if Microsoft doesn't - and few are likely to bet money that it would - Corel probably won't either.
We asked Carriere, since WordPerfect X3 touts Adobe PDF importing and publishing as one of its major new features, why not just give users the option of adopting PDF as their default file format? Carriere stated it would change the way WordPerfect works; specifically, its word processing engine is still built around its classic file format, which uses a unique form of markup for its formatting. To this day, users can change the appearance of a WordPerfect document by moving around the markup tags, not unlike working with a high-end HTML editor - but entirely unlike Microsoft Word, in one of the few unique features WordPerfect has left.
Giving up the WPD format for PDF is about as likely as giving it up for an XML-based format of any time, whether it be Microsoft's or OpenDocument. Still, the company promises it will retain compatibility with whatever formats the market deems relevant. But Carriere points to market data from analysis firm NPD, which he says gives WordPerfect 95% of the market for non-Microsoft word processors - in other words, nineteen-twentieths of the remaining 5% of the market. This gives OpenOffice, StarOffice, and whatever else remains of the word processor market, a collective share of less than three one hundredths of a percentage point. He was too polite to say it, but we knew what he meant: That's not really a "market share." If the customer votes for relevance with his dollars, the votes appear to be in.
What Corel does now with WordPerfect, Carriere explained to us, is "very different from having to design from scratch the end-to-end system of the future, which is something Microsoft is doing. That's their approach. We're looking at the various configurations out there, and making sure we are as accessible as possible, and connect well to them. In the last two and a half years, in a quiet, yet very effective, way, we've seen millions of people choose our product...I'm not going to pretend at this point that our goal is to take over 15, 20, 50% of that $11 billion market away from Microsoft. You would probably not take me very seriously, and that would not make any sense."