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 to 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 to Word Perfect; Microsoft Excel trailed behind Lotus 1-2-3 as the business spreadsheet of choice. But when Microsoft?s Windows 3.0 became a platform 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 operating system for the new decade, and had been ignoring Windows.

With Excel and Word for Windows, Microsoft already had capable Windows applications?Lotus, Word Perfect, and other DOS software companies had to scramble to compete. And Microsoft took advantage of the delay to build market share in the new Windows mass-market. Other tactics helped?the giant DOS applications typically sold for prices around $400-500. Microsoft offered competitive upgrades for closer to $100 to woo their competitors? customers. 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 graphics, and in some versions, Access database. Word Perfect still sells more single 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 is that Novell, or Corel? (Perfect Office) compete for what?s left after Microsoft?s huge share.

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 Office 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 take advantage of Win 95?s long file names and other features, Microsoft Office was the only way to go.

No more.

While 32-bit versions of Word Perfect and its Perfect Office suite are still in prerelease beta testing, Lotus has released its 32-bit competition to Microsoft Office?SmartSuite 96. At least, it?s mostly 32-bit.

The current version of  SmartSuite 96 includes 32-bit versions of Lotus?s new word processor Word Pro,  its presentation graphics program, Freelance, and the Approach database program. The package includes 16-bit (Windows 3.1) versions of 1-2-3 spreadsheet, and Lotus Organizer personal information manager?users are promised free upgrades to new version 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 collection of separate applications. Instead, they are stressing how well the applications work together, and its tools for workgroups?small teams collaborating on projects.

After installing SmartSuite, users will find a new control panel, SmartCenter...a row of drawers across the top of the screen. Drawers open, revealing the contents... no socks or underwear, instead, files or applications, or even more drawers (drawers within drawers seems a bit of an odd metaphor, but Amiga users will appreciate the return to that platform?s files within drawers). The first drawer is filled with the SmartSuite applications?other drawers can be easily customized to hold whatever you choose?an alternative 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 corner of the screen, containing the Win95 clock along with other optional icons. 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 WordPro, Freelance, and Approach, for example. LotusScript provides a powerful common Basic-like macro language for the new, 32-bit applications. Right-clicking on objects in these programs brings up a common tabbed dialogue box?a powerful tool pioneered in an earlier version of Approach?and much more fully-featured than the imitation in Microsoft?s products. As in earlier SmartSuite versions, each program features a shared set of toolbar icons. (Note that these common 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 the application set. Several, for example, feature Lotus Assistants (similar to Microsoft?s Wizards, to guide users through building basic documents), but these are missing in Freelance and Organizer. 1-2-3 lacks the Guided Tours available in some of the other applications. WordPro alone offers an ?Ask the Expert? 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 purchase of Lotus, last year. The company?s emphasis on providing tools for workgroups 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 Microsoft?s new products all include a Send feature, this launches Windows 95?s Exchange program, which I find exceptionally slow and clumsy. With TeamMail, you can easily send entire documents, or even a spreadsheet range or presentation 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 comments, after they?ve all had a chance to review your work. You can compare differences, and prepare a single document from the pieces.

? TeamSecurity beefs up TeamReview?s features, additionally letting 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 applications in the Suite. Unfortunately, some of these features are incompletely available across the suite. TeamReview, for instance, appears only in WordPro and Freelance, while version control is only a feature in WordPro and 1-2-3.

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 publishing-like frames, while moving closer in the direction of more traditional word processors. It adds useful features like background spell-checking as you type.

While it properly reads any old AmiPro documents, it doesn?t always do a good job of re-saving them into its new format, and doesn?t work well with AmiPro macros. As well, where AmiPro was faster than Microsoft Word, 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 new 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 presentations that could fit onto a single floppy diskette, and run on any computer with 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 than either, however. As well, the other suites only include databases in their higher-priced ?professional? versions... Access is available in Lotus?s core package. (Computer Player?s database columnist, John Hamm, has promised a closer look at the new Approach?s features).

1-2-3 and Organizer remain basically unchanged from previous, Windows 3.1 versions of the suite. The standalone version of 1-2-3 release 5 has 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 for 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. Inclusion of these programs is a problem for the suite; Lotus faced a difficult choice between selling an incompletely 32-bit suite now, or waiting until all components were ready, surrendering more market share to Microsoft in the process.

An added extra is Lotus ScreenCam... this program allows users to record everything going on onscreen?mouse movements, keystrokes, menus dropping 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?... though this dramatically boosts file sizes. A better alternative is to add cartoon-like 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. Unfortunately, the applications themselves can?t be run from the CD... and they take up a lot of hard drive space (a total between about 60 and 150 megs, depending on options chosen); a pity, if you only need to run, say Freelance, once in a while. (At least this version of SmartSuite uses a common installation program for all features?older versions made you install each program separately).

The verdict

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 having an OS/2 version out soon, as well as fully 32-bit versions of the remaining Windows 95 components. When IBM purchased Lotus last year, there were fears among users of other Lotus applications that Big Blue only really wanted Lotus Notes, and would abandon the other applications. Happily, IBM appears 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 running Windows 95, and don?t currently own an application Suite, this one is certainly worth considering, along with the market leader.

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

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