Lotus Improv

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First published in Our Computer Player, June 18, 1993

Lotus Improv
List $495 (US), currently widely available for $129

requires: Windows 3.1, 386SX-20 w. 4 mb ram minimum hardware,
7-12 mb free hard drive space

In the early '80s, the 1-2-3 spreadsheet quickly made Lotus the top-grossing
company selling personal computing software. And after releasing 1-2-3
version 2 in 1985, Lotus seemed to be happy to just sit there, at the

They seemed to be unable to sell anything else... even when they had
unique products like Magellan, they seemed unable to market them. But as
long as the money rolled in with 1-2-3, should they care?

But somehow, a couple of years ago, instead of just porting over 1-2-3
to the NeXT computer, Lotus gave Steve Job's futuristic black box a
spreadsheet for the future... Improv.

Improv seemed like such a vision of the next generation of software that
it was virtually the only software out for the NeXT to get reviews (and
rave reviews at that) in tunnel-visioned PC magazines. (You know, dear
reader, that by 'PC' I don't mean 'politically correct', or computers
like Amigas or Macs... I  mean Personal Computers as in IBM-standard or
MS-DOS running personal computers).

But while everybody oohed and aahed over Improv and over the NeXT in
general, hardly anybody bought either. I suspect there are more personal
computers in the Vancouver school systems than NeXTs sold world-wide.
(No, I don't have hard data on this... just a suspicion). In fact, this
year, Steve Jobs sold the NeXT hardware division to Canon, so that NeXT
could concentrate on producing an operating system to run on (gasp!)

Meanwhile, Lotus released Improv for Windows 3.1. It's called version
2.0, even though there was no version 1.0 for Windows. It's added the
now standard Lotus Windows interface to the NeXT innovations, and it
looks like a great product.

But here's the problem for Lotus... how do you sell two spreadsheets for

1-2-3 for Windows has had a rough ride, but is finally becoming a strong
product with Release 4 (see accompanying article). Can Lotus
successfully sell two solid spreadsheets in the same market without
confusing the buying public? It seems like Lotus isn't quite sure where
do go with this one, and who can blame them?

While Improv for Windows hasn't seemed to be getting a lot of advertising
since its release last Winter, it has been getting into most of the
major software stores, and Lotus is offering it at a deep-discount $129
price point.


Improv opens up to look like any other spreadsheet, until you notice
that there are no letters along the top, no numbers down the sides. In
fact, you don't use traditional cell addresses at all.

In that, and many other ways, old-time spreadsheet users will be at a
disadvantage compared to new-comers to Improv. This isn't just another
variation on the 1-2-3/Quattro/Excel theme.

Rows and columns become 'items' in Improv-speak. You start off with a
single-cell worksheet, and two generic items. Give the items meaningful
names: Income, Expenses, Profit, 1992, 1993, etc. Cells are referred to
by the items that define them... 1992:Expenses, for example.

Add data. To add new items, just select an existing one and press ENTER.
Your worksheet expands, and you can type in the new item's name.

You can add new categories just as easily. This creates a new
dimension... for example, we could look at our financial picture in
different countries, or across different product lines, or what have
you. Improv supports up to 12 categories in a single worksheet.

You don't enter formulas into cells, and as a result, there's no copying
formulas across rows or columns. Enter a formula into a formula window,
below your worksheet. Simply drag category or item names into the
formula window. Click on operators ('+', '-', '=', etc) from the status
bar on the bottom of the screen. Your formula might read INCOME-
EXPENSES=PROFIT. And it will be automatically applied to all cells
involving Profit. Because formulas use names instead of cell addresses,
they are much understandable, especially to multiple users. (Workgroups
are one of our buzzwords for computing in the 90's).As your spreadsheet
changes, formulas continually apply themselves as needed.

Similarly, you can group items quickly, and equally quickly create
summaries... total rent, hydro, groceries, and phone in your budget by
clicking on ADD GROUP SUMMARY in the menu. Choose TOTAL, and it's done.

The real power on Improv, though, comes from the ease of creating
multiple views. Say you've got your profit/loss statements for a five
year period, from several countries, and looking at your range of
products. You may want to view it by country, or by year, or by product
line. With traditional spreadsheets, you could do this, but it would be
a chore.

With Improv, you keep a single set of categories and data. To change the
view, simply drag the category names with the mouse. The data re-
arranges itself to reflect the new arrangement. Again, multiple users
can easily work with the same data in different ways.


Improv supports the now-standard Lotus Windows look and feel, pioneered
by Ami Pro word processor. There is a SmartIcon toolbar, by default
along the top, but easily moved wherever you prefer. As in Ami Pro and
FreeLance for Windows, you can create your own SmartIcon set, and have
multiple named sets. The Status Bar along the bottom lets you quickly
adjust font and size, SmartIcon set, and number format when you're
adding data. It changes to reflect what you're working on... when you're
editing a formula, you get to add numeric operators. All the current
generation of Lotus Windows products support a similar interface; it's
powerful, and easy to get used to.

Like any good spreadsheet, there're charts. Lots of chart types, easy to
use. Because data is always clearly labelled, charts are generally
correctly labelled as well.

Macros? Of course. In this case, the LotusScript language... do I sense a
cross-product standard here?

File importing and exporting? 1-2-3 and Excel and delimited text are
supported. But here's a problem. Because Improv deals with data in such
a different way from more traditional spreadsheets, you're best off to
prepare your older spreadsheets... label ranges, then import a range at
a time. Improv doesn't need the rows and columns of labels that clutter
most of our current crop of worksheets.

And Improv doesn't make any pretence of supporting 1-2-3 or Excel
macros. Don't even think about it.

There's no built-in support for external databases, although a coupon to
order a $99 copy of Q+E from Pioneer Software would let you use Improv
as a database front-end.


So we're back to Lotus's problem. From being a company stuck firmly in
the its past spreadsheet glories, Lotus suddenly has two solid
products... 1-2-3 release 4, and Improv. What to do? What to do?

If you're new to speadsheets, and don't have to interact with a base of
existing 1-2-3 or Excel worksheets, you really should take a look at
Improv. It seems like it would be easier to learn than one of the more
traditional products, and its multiple viewing potential seems very
powerful and useful.

Computer users who've already gotten comfortable with one or another
traditional spreadsheet may have a harder time switching over, however.
There is a cute, 40 minute animated Guided Tour, aimed at users of other
spreadsheets (and available free from Lotus... call: 1-800-563-6887),
but it's just the beginning. Be prepared to spend time learning new ways
to work.

Still, at $129, it's not a lot of money for a taste of the next
generation of software.

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1993, as a review. A decade and more later, I've gotten a series of emails from Improv fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at OldSoftware.com.If you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan