Close Approaches of the Third kind

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, October 1994

Lotus Approach
$175 (CDN list) ($20 rebate coupon for upgraders)
Lotus Development Corporation
10 Bay Street
Toronto, Ontario M5J 2R8

Remember the so-called 'Big Three' categories of software?
At one time, everyone was supposed to need a word processor, a spreadsheet, and
a database if they wanted to call themselves a personal computer

Standards were set, and fortunes made (and lost) over that one.
And millions of users purchased, and learned how to use Word
Perfect. And (not quite as many) millions of users became
acquainted with Lotus 1-2-3.

But far fewer millions of users got copies of, say, dBase... the
equivalent DOS standard for databases. Why didn't databases
become software for the masses the way word processing or
spreadsheets have?

Certainly it's not for lack of uses... list your household
inventory, your phone book, why even that old cliche of early-
eighties personal computing -- your recipe collections. Business
or home user, we've all got lists of information, that could be
organized by the database idea of fields and records.

But databases seemed to come in two categories... on the one
hand, the heavy-duty relational databases like dBase and its
clones, always seemed, well, too heavy. Programmable? Not for me
thanks! (Although a couple of generations of computer
consultants made a good living customizing dBase code for small

And on the other end, while several easier-to-use flat file
databases picked up loyal groups of fans, none became a low-end


Coming into the '90s, software giant Lotus was coming from
behind in the rapidly expanding Windows software market, having
worked hard at producing a version of their flagship spreadsheet
program, 1-2-3G, for the OS/2 market. Unfortunately, hardly
anyone purchased OS/2 version 1.x, and as a result, hardly
anyone got a chance to use 1-2-3G.

Well, if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

So Lotus purchased Ami Pro, a well-regarded Windows word
processor. And with the subsequent purchase of the Approach
database, and their own belated development of versions of 1-2-3
and Freelance Graphics for Windows, they had their own full suite of Windows
applications, to compete with Microsoft Office.

Version 2 of Approach kept the guts of the original purchase,
well regarded as one of the easiest of the first generation of
Windows databases. At that stage, Lotus was more interested in
cosmetic changes... adding a SmartIcon tool bar to give it a
consistent look and feel to the other SmartSuite products.

Release 3 adds about 200 enhancements, making an already good
product better.

It ships on 6 diskettes, requiring between 6 and 23 megs of
drive space, depending on options selected in the
straightforward installation. It shares some support files such
as dictionaries with other Lotus applications, updating both the
English and French-Canadian dictionaries used by Ami Pro on my
system. As Windows applications go, its installation was pretty
clean, keeping virtually all its files in its own directories.


When it starts up, you get the first indication of the
improvements. You're offered a choice of opening an existing
file or starting a new one... choose a new one, and you get
presented with a list of templates. 51 database templates,
including good starting points for many common business and
personal uses.

Whether you open a file, choose a template, or design your own
from scratch, you get a new look... tabs along the top of the
work area let you quickly switch between your forms, a new
worksheet view with data in spreadsheet-like columns and rows,
and any reports that you've created.

And like the previous version, and other Lotus applications, you
still have easily customizable SmartIcons (with multiple sets
available for different users or different files), and the
versatile status bar along the bottom of the screen.

You can directly read or import a wide range of data file formats... dBase,
Paradox, FoxPro, Oracle and other SQL varieties, ODBC, and even
arch-rival Microsoft Access. As well, new features permit
Approach to work with data in Lotus Notes, fast becoming the
workgroup standard.

Designing a new database from scratch is easy... simply type in
a field name (up to 32 characters, spaces, and punctuation are
all allowed), choose a type from the list that appears, and a
length. You can set criteria for data at the same time, if you
choose, by clicking on Options. You can even define a default
value. By leaving the Options dialogue open, you can quickly
repeat the process as you add new fields.

When you're done creating fields, you jump into the default data-
entry form. It may the default, but it's pretty nice... 3-D
effects and all. Move the fields around, change the title (
unless you like calling it "Form 1") and you're ready to add

You can get fancy, if you prefer, using the new floating design
toolbar. Add shapes, buttons? No problem. Or try out the
InfoBox, my nominee for slickest feature of this upgrade.

The InfoBox is just a right-click away from any selected object (
or a SmartIcon click or a menu selection, if you prefer). A
small, tabbed dialogue box of multiple pages, with pretty much
everything that you can customize. It will take you a couple of
minutes to figure out the symbols on the tabs, but after that,
it's quick and easy.

And like the Options dialogue, and the design toolbar, it can be
left open and floating-- out of the way, but available as long
as you need it. The tabs and content change to reflect what you'
ve selected, making it ideal for experimenting until you get the
look you want.

Like Ami Pro, there's a SmartIcon that resembles a paintbrush.
This is the Fast Formatting icon. Wave the paintbrush cursor
over one object, and you 'soak up' its formatting... now
painting over other objects gives them the same characteristics
of the original.

The new Worksheet view shows your data as a table, with your
fields as the columns and each record in a separate row. You can
rearrange column order by dragging them around the sheet. Drag a
column off the sheet to hide it. You can easily add, sort, or
search data in this view.

Like Lotus's recently cancelled Improv spreadsheet, it's easy to
get a new view of your worksheet. Drag a field-name from the top
of the sheet to the left-hand edge for instant an crosstab.

A new Report Assistant walks you through the report process.
SmartMasters give you a variety of popular setups for reports (
or of course you can start from scratch). At every step, a
thumbnail picture shows you how your report will look.

After giving your report a look, you're prompted to choose the
fields to include. Afterwards, you can use the familiar design
tools to spruce up the report's appearance. There are other
Assistants to help with charting, crosstabs, and mailing labels.
And like the other Lotus applications, help is always a click
away-- each dialogue box has a question-mark button in the top
right corner, for context-sensitive help.

This is a relational database... you can combine information
from multiple collections of data. To join two databases, simply
open them both, and then drag a field name from one list to the

Other features include a macro langauage, "X/O" technology to
speed it up, "PowerClick Reporting" simplifying sorts,
groupings, and calculations, an integrated mail merge (or if you
prefer, the ability to work with a range of word processors),
120 chart types, and 84 functions.

If you have 1-2-3 release 4.01, you'll discover new menu items
in your Database menu-- integrating it with Approach. Approach
can work with an range in a 1-2-3 (release 4) spreadsheet. And
the new 1-2-3 release 5.0 (watch for our review next month) is
designed from the ground up, for integration with Approach. Both
new Lotus releases are also designed to work well with Lotus

It works with a wide range of networks, including NetWare and
NetWare Lite, Lantastic, Banyon Vines, Windows for Workgroups,
and others.

You can also choose to use Approach to send e-mail-- either your
current record or whole file can be sent, with Approach
automatically starting up your VIM or MAPI supporting e-mail
program. Add an address, a subject, and any additional text, and
send it out.

No programming necessary, powerful, and at the same time, much
perkier than the also friendly, but often plodding Microsoft
Access. Approach is a winner, whether purchased on its own, or
as part of Lotus's SmartSuite software collection. It deserves to
join word processors and spreadsheets on the many desktops of
the database-shy.

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1994, as a review. A decade and more later, I've gotten a series of emails from  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 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