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Microsoft Office faces British invasion

Ability Plus Office, a productivity software package that has eked out modest market share in Europe, is heading to North America.

A small British software maker plans to challenge one of Microsoft's most profitable markets by selling its low-cost package of productivity applications in North America.

Ability Plus Software has been selling word processors and other office applications in Europe since the 1980s. The company now hopes to expand by selling Ability Office--a package that combines a word processor, a spreadsheet program and other applications similar to Microsoft's dominant Office--in North America. A retail version of Ability Office that runs on Windows will sell for about $50 and should appear in stores starting in November.

Ishan Amin, vice president of product development for Ability Office, said the company will target small businesses and consumers.

"Ninety percent of people just use the basic features of any office application," he said. "Why should you spend $400 to $500 for an office suite just for the basic features? We're going after a market that doesn't want to spend more than $50."

Microsoft last week unveiled its latest bid to retain its dominance of the productivity software market. Enhancements in Office 2003 are focused on automating business tasks and integrating documents with corporate computing resources. Depending on the package, Office ranges in price from $149 to $499.

Ability Office faces competition from Corel's Word Perfect, Sun Microsystems' StarOffice package and OpenOffice, it's free, open-source sibling. None of these products have captured a significant share of the market from Microsoft's Office.

Amin said Ability's advantages include the inclusion of Photopaint, a graphics and image-editing application, and Ability Database, which is comparable to Microsoft's Access. Ability Office applications also include tools for saving files in Adobe Systems' Portable Document Format.

"The features and compatibility really make it a genuine alternative to (Microsoft) Office," he said.