Lotus SmartSuite 96 challenges Microsoft Office
by Alan Zisman
(c) 1996. First
published in Computer Player, May 1996
For the first decade or so of personal computers,
Microsoft may have
provided the operating system, but it was the perennial also-ran in the
area of applications?the programs that people actually used to get work
done on their computers. And after all, no one really buys a computer
run the operating system?especially an operating system like DOS!
While Microsoft?s applications were best-sellers for
the Mac, on the
much more widespread PC-platform, Microsoft Word was a distant second
Word Perfect; Microsoft Excel trailed behind Lotus 1-2-3 as the
spreadsheet of choice. But when Microsoft?s Windows 3.0 became a
of choice at the dawn of the 1990s, the traditional DOS software giants
were taken by surprise... they?d been expecting OS/2 to emerge as the
system for the new decade, and had been ignoring Windows.
With Excel and Word for Windows, Microsoft already had
applications?Lotus, Word Perfect, and other DOS software companies had
to scramble to compete. And Microsoft took advantage of the delay to
market share in the new Windows mass-market. Other tactics helped?the
DOS applications typically sold for prices around $400-500. Microsoft
competitive upgrades for closer to $100 to woo their competitors?
And along the way, came the software suite... a bundle of three or four
major applications, for less than the price of buying two.
Put it all together, and today, Microsoft?last
decade?s also-ran, controls
80% (some say 90%) of the market for Windows applications suites, with
its Microsoft Office, packaging Word, Excel, PowerPoint presentation
and in some versions, Access database. Word Perfect still sells more
copies of its word processor, but more word processors are now sold as
part of a suite. Suites from Lotus (SmartSuite) and Word Perfect ? or
that Novell, or Corel? (Perfect Office) compete for what?s left after
And with last August?s release of Windows 95,
Microsoft seemed set to
repeat its success. Microsoft Office 95, with 32-bit versions of the
products, was available on the same day as Windows 95. Even though Win
95?s release was no surprise, and beta copies and Software Development
Kits had been widely available for over a year, for users looking to
advantage of Win 95?s long file names and other features, Microsoft
was the only way to go.
While 32-bit versions of Word Perfect and its Perfect
Office suite are
still in prerelease beta testing, Lotus has released its 32-bit
to Microsoft Office?SmartSuite 96. At least, it?s mostly 32-bit.
The current version of SmartSuite 96 includes
of Lotus?s new word processor Word Pro, its presentation graphics
program, Freelance, and the Approach database program. The package
16-bit (Windows 3.1) versions of 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and Lotus Organizer
personal information manager?users are promised free upgrades to new
of those programs, when they become available.
They look alike, they act alike...
Lotus is trying to sell this suite as more than just a
separate applications. Instead, they are stressing how well the
work together, and its tools for workgroups?small teams collaborating
After installing SmartSuite, users will find a new
control panel, SmartCenter...a
row of drawers across the top of the screen. Drawers open, revealing
contents... no socks or underwear, instead, files or applications, or
more drawers (drawers within drawers seems a bit of an odd metaphor,
Amiga users will appreciate the return to that platform?s files within
drawers). The first drawer is filled with the SmartSuite
drawers can be easily customized to hold whatever you choose?an
to Win 95?s Start button.
As well, miniature icons for each of SmartSuite?s
applications are added
to the TaskBar?s tray?the little inset area on the bottom right-hand
of the screen, containing the Win95 clock along with other optional
While convenient, I find those icons too small... luckily, resting your
cursor on them gets an description bubble.
Once started, users will find that the new versions of
the various programs
are more standardized... more dialogue boxes are common between
Freelance, and Approach, for example. LotusScript provides a powerful
Basic-like macro language for the new, 32-bit applications.
on objects in these programs brings up a common tabbed dialogue box?a
tool pioneered in an earlier version of Approach?and much more
than the imitation in Microsoft?s products. As in earlier SmartSuite
each program features a shared set of toolbar icons. (Note that these
features are not fully implemented in the still-to-be-upgraded programs
such as 1-2-3).
Some of the help-type features, however, vary across
set. Several, for example, feature Lotus Assistants (similar to
Wizards, to guide users through building basic documents), but these
missing in Freelance and Organizer. 1-2-3 lacks the Guided Tours
in some of the other applications. WordPro alone offers an ?Ask the
feature, while Freelance alone offers ?Guide Me?.
Who?s on your team?
Lotus has bet its future on Lotus Notes?a powerful,
platform for sharing
information over the corporate network?and the main reason for IBM?s
of Lotus, last year. The company?s emphasis on providing tools for
extends to SmartSuite, and is its main difference from the competition.
The new version of the suite offers four main features
aimed at ?team
computing? (as Lotus refers to workgroups).
? TeamMail lets users send information from any
application to another
user, without having to launch an external mail program. While
new products all include a Send feature, this launches Windows 95?s
program, which I find exceptionally slow and clumsy. With TeamMail, you
can easily send entire documents, or even a spreadsheet range or
slide?to an individual, or to all the members of a group.
? TeamReview lets users specify individuals or groups
who can have access
to documents, and what level of access they can have. Users can include
post-it type notes in their documents. This allows different readers to
edit, print, or simply comment on the documents as they are distributed
around the workgroup.
? TeamConsolidate lets you deal with your workgroup?s
they?ve all had a chance to review your work. You can compare
and prepare a single document from the pieces.
? TeamSecurity beefs up TeamReview?s features,
you protect or hide all or parts of your document.
These document management features have been available
before, but only
as part of dedicated programs. Now, they?re built right into the core
in the Suite. Unfortunately, some of these features are incompletely
across the suite. TeamReview, for instance, appears only in WordPro and
Freelance, while version control is only a feature in WordPro and
What about the actual programs?
The individual components have a lot to recommend
them?WordPro is a
significant upgrade to Lotus?s former word processor, AmiPro; it keeps
AmiPro?s powerful page design features with support for desktop
frames, while moving closer in the direction of more traditional word
It adds useful features like background spell-checking as you type.
While it properly reads any old AmiPro documents, it
do a good job of re-saving them into its new format, and doesn?t work
with AmiPro macros. As well, where AmiPro was faster than Microsoft
the new Word Pro is slower than either AmiPro or Word.
Freelance as well uses a new file format, but works
well with presentations
created in the older versions. It remains easy to use, and has added
transitions and effects. Unfortunately, it?s no longer possible to save
a low resolution DOS runtime version of your presentations?a feature I
quite liked in the older versions, as it let me create copies of my
that could fit onto a single floppy diskette, and run on any computer
DOS and a VGA monitor.
Approach remains less powerful than Microsoft Access
or Borland Paradox,
included in the competing Suites. It is significantly easier to use
either, however. As well, the other suites only include databases in
higher-priced ?professional? versions... Access is available in Lotus?s
core package. (Computer Player?s database columnist, John Hamm, has
a closer look at the new Approach?s features).
1-2-3 and Organizer remain basically unchanged from
3.1 versions of the suite. The standalone version of 1-2-3 release 5
been reviewed in depth in a past issue. Organizer remains a remarkably
easy to use personal information manager, with its interface resembling
a paper day-timer. It especially benefits from networked connections
sharing appointments and meeting times.
I wish Lotus had included a utility such as
Vertisoft?s Name-It to allow
these 16-bit programs to make use of Windows 95 long file names.
of these programs is a problem for the suite; Lotus faced a difficult
between selling an incompletely 32-bit suite now, or waiting until all
components were ready, surrendering more market share to Microsoft in
An added extra is Lotus ScreenCam... this program
allows users to record
everything going on onscreen?mouse movements, keystrokes, menus
down... not as a macro, but as a training or demonstration tool. With a
sound card and mike, you can even add voice-overs to the ?movie?...
this dramatically boosts file sizes. A better alternative is to add
explanatory text bubbles.
Documentation, in the copy I received, was only on CD;
users could choose
to install help files onto their hard disk, or read it from the CD.
the applications themselves can?t be run from the CD... and they take
a lot of hard drive space (a total between about 60 and 150 megs,
on options chosen); a pity, if you only need to run, say Freelance,
in a while. (At least this version of SmartSuite uses a common
program for all features?older versions made you install each program
With its workgroup features, SmartSuite 96 will be a
good choice for
users who are often working as part of a team, or on a network running
Lotus Notes. As well, SmartSuite is the best bet for users working in a
mixed Windows 95 and OS/2 environment... IBM/Lotus is committed to
an OS/2 version out soon, as well as fully 32-bit versions of the
Windows 95 components. When IBM purchased Lotus last year, there were
among users of other Lotus applications that Big Blue only really
Lotus Notes, and would abandon the other applications. Happily, IBM
committed to keeping SmartSuite competitive.
The individual applications are solid, but are
probably not good enough
to spur a current Microsoft Office user to switch over. If you?re
Windows 95, and don?t currently own an application Suite, this one is
worth considering, along with the market leader.