When it comes to giants in the land of software, none is as big
and powerful as the titans of Microsoft. Of programs foolhardy
enough to challenge Microsoft, few have returned to tell the tale.
(Heard lately from Netscape or OS2?) Most of those that have tried
to compete with Office, the hulking battleship of Microsoft’s
fleet, have come from other big companies such as Sun with the cash
to try to one-up Microsoft just for bragging rights.
And then there’s Ssuite Office’s The Fifth Element. (Yes,
“Ssuite” is spelled correctly, and, no, we’re not talking about a
Bruce Willis movie.) The Fifth Element, which has come from South
Africa to take on the Colossus of Redmond, is a collection of
office applications with a wider range than those in MS Office. Any
decent suite can do word processing, spreadsheets, presentations,
and e-mail. The Fifth Element includes a browser, tools for
managing LANs, holding chats and making calls using VoIP. It
provides a drawing module, photo and album editors, sound
recorders, and MP3 and video players. There’s a search engine, a
sort engine, envelope printer, encryption, and a chess game, for
more than 30 programs overall. And if it’s not exactly the right
combination for you, Ssuite Office has several other office
software packages of various complexities, all free.
For all its breadth, The Fifth Element is shallow–and that’s
meant in the nicest sense. Most operations require you to go no
more than a couple of clicks into a menu. The most common tasks are
neatly displayed at the top levels of the screens, making for quick
learning and use. The are a welcome relief from the madly swirling,
morphing menus in Microsoft Office 2007. One reason for the
simplicity, over and beyond making the Fifth Element a snap to use,
is that most of the programs appear to be frankenware, pieced
together from publicly available code. That makes them a kludge,
but they’re very nice kludges.