Lotus SmartSuite 96/97 for Windows 95 Review
By Fred Kagel

For anyone who still remembers Lotus Symphony as the "integrated" software of the eighties, Lotus SmartSuite of ninety-something presents a desktop sonata of five applications: Lotus 1-2-3, the ever andante flowing spreadsheet; WordPro, a much underrated scherzo of a wordprocessor; Approach, an allegro-learned database; Freelance Graphics, the award winning thematic presentation module; and Organizer, the group finale movement scheduler.

As with a symphony, the whole is more than the sum of its parts; to wit, Lotus has attempted to market the Suite as "The Desktop Solution for You and Your Team." I say "attempt", because not until Lotus made a presentation to BCUG and not until I started to review the product more thoroughly, did I fully realize the built-in group editing and review functions of the Suite. Right under the File menu of WordPro are gateways to TeamMail and the Internet. A team is made up of a group of electronically connected individuals with certain read, edit, and write privileges. Files may be TeamReviewed and TeamConsolidated on a network or Internet server. Files may be opened directly from the Internet and saved directly to the Internet from within the Suite. This is hot stuff for corporate wide Intranets and definitely the trend. Better get use to it!

Yet, one still has to love the individual apps before joining the team. The anchor product of the Suite is, of course, Lotus 1-2-3, which is really release 5. It does not support long filenames, but by the time you read this review it will support long filenames in SmartSuite 97. A free to nominal charge upgrade is available.

The formatting buttons on the status bar at the bottom of 1-2-3’s screen are live. Simply click on the cells you wish to format, click on the status bar, and choose your formatting in a snap. This feature has been around since version 4. Lotus will automatically format currency upon data entry as it will other formats; however, it doesn’t automatically format dates when entered in standard mm/dd/yy form. Lotus is, however, Year 2000 ready!

I have always preferred Lotus’s function assistant over the competition: @avg(list) permits easy mouse selection of a range of cells. Macro functions starting with version 4 have been greatly improved to include result oriented functions. Most old-timers took a while to get use to the new macros. The same old transcript window that shows recorded macros is awkward but manageable. It’s used to mainly cut or copy and paste macro code back into a spreadsheet. Still no global macros.

Lotus’s toolbar is called a SmartIcon bar with, what else, but SmartIcons. It is fully customizable and switchable to, god knows, how many sets of icon bars. Having said that, I find switching the toolbars an extreme waste of time. I configure one toolbar with my favorite little icons and all of the other short-cut functions are activated with the now standard context sensitive right mouse click. Anyhow, if you use a particular spreadsheet because of its toolbar functionality or lack thereof, you are in the wrong field. Believe it or not, many of my old DOS to Windows students still use "/C~.{D4}~" faster than I can say "cut and paste." Message to Lotus developers: Don’t ever remove the "classic" just to become like those other guys.

Disappointingly, the Suite’s menus lack consistency. In 1-2-3, User Setups are in the Tools menu and simple View Preferences are under View. In WordPro, the User Setup is under the File menu and View Preferences, while still under View, has four second level tab choices. Some of my students have also noticed that the File | Print Preview in 1-2-3 is called Zoom to Full Page under the View menu in WordPro. The text for bubble help for the Print Preview icons are similarly consistent or consistently inconsistent — take your pick. SmartSuite 97 has rectified some but not all of these inconsistencies.

Approach is a full blown relational database known for its relative ease of use. Data types include not only standard text, numeric, date, memo types, but also include Boolean and binaries known as a Picture Plus type. Approach’s data is in familiar .DBF and other standard database formats, which makes Approach easy to use for converting from one database format to another. Be forewarned, however, if you use Approach templates: the templates define phone numbers and zip codes as numeric instead of text! A right-click in the design mode of a form design brings up properties to restrict user input to what is commonly known as a picture format for phone numbers and zip code plus four. Surprisingly, Lotus also stuck the initial caps format under the "#" property tab — I kid you not! A group of BCUG Database SIG experts found it difficult to use the default and validity functions such as "Proper ( )." Beginners will not be disappointed, though, with Lotus Assistants, Tours, Ask the Expert, and Guide Me wizards. Advanced users need more on-line examples. Acrobat is also used to view and print out on-line manuals from the CD-ROM. Approach has limited macro usage with no "record macros" like 1-2-3, but it is supported by LotusScript, the cross-application scripting language.

In Approach, forms and reports become tabbed views, which makes it easy to go back and forth to different views. For example, a view of customer contacts could be set up for each of the five boroughs of New York. Easy or complex queries and filters can be created using a Find Assistant. For another example, "List all of my sales in Brooklyn since the beginning of the year." Once created, a drop down box selects the "find" by name. You can create one-to-many types of relationships in forms using what Lotus calls "repeating panels."

Word, 1-2-3, and Approach all integrate with Lotus Notes, the standard in groupware.

Freelance has repeatedly won awards in the presentation graphics department. Freelance doubles as a planning tool for developing business plans, marketing plans, and project status reports. Freelance sports over 100 ready-made business diagrams to facilitate time lines and hub diagrams. In addition to TeamReview, TeamShow is a feature that lets others view the presentation even if they do not have a full copy of Freelance Graphics. Web designers, pay attention; it may be a way to go with animation.

Organizer is the team’s address book, calendar, and appointment scheduler. Names and addresses in Organizer can be mailmerged with WordPro. The SmartCenter comes with a limited address book. Use Organizer for the serious stuff.

A hidden gem in the Suite is ScreenCam, which permits a visual and audio recording of mouse actions and keyboard strokes. This is a great educational and training tool.

I recommend SmartSuite for new users and experienced users, but have reservations on recommending WordPro as one’s first wordprocessor because of its confusing "cycling" of formats; i.e., click once on the alignment icon, text is centered, click again it is right-aligned, keep clicking and you eventually get back to left alignment. WordPro has the same thing for bold, italics, and underlining. In fact, the program has six different ways to change font attributes, three of which take up valuable screen real estate! On the plus side, WordPro, formerly known as AmiPro, has always been a leader with built-in templates, paragraph and box styles, and now, supports Web design styles. One real nifty feature is the Click Here Block. They can be used as hot spots to guide user entry in templates or shared documents. Another unique feature is the "division" tab, which instantly moved to another section of a document by clicking on the tab. I can see many practical uses of this feature. As with any program that has so many features, one needs time just to discover them, let alone be able to use them.

As was discovered in transmitting this review to the editor, share your WordPro docs with the rest of the world by saving your files as .RTF (Rich Text Format) or as one of the twenty other file formats.

If your company is thinking about using groupware a la Lotus Notes, choosing SmartSuite is a no-brainer. Also, if you are an OS/2 user, SmartSuite is the way to go. As for switching from your present Suite, that’s a tough call. I would definitely suggest that all users take a close look at Approach to develop simple, powerful, and attractive end user applications. Finally, I recommend Freelance as a serious contender to that other presentation program from Redmond.

SmartSuite requires a 486 machine or higher, with 12 MB or more to run multiple apps (I recommend 16MB), and 57MB - 140MB for a minimum to full install. Warning: if you do less than a full install, some of the options show up on menus as active even though they are inactive. The price for SmartSuite is all over the place: I’ve seen SmartSuite 96 at computer shows for less than $50 on the "lite" side (no manuals), to $149 for SmartSuite 96 with manuals, and all the way up to $349 for the full-blown package of SmartSuite 97. User group members can get a special price.

Fred Kagel, is the director of the Freehold Computer Training Center and the database SIG leader.

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