Lotus office suite a well-designed product
despite low popularity with consumers- Feb 18 1997

If you believe the software companies' ads, it's time to upgrade your core business software -- Corel, Lotus, and Microsoft have each recently released new versions of their respective office suite products. It is software that, in one form or another, resides on almost every work-oriented computer. In keeping with current market reality, all these upgrades are for Windows 95/NT users only: all others can go back to sleep.

Last week, we looked at the new releases from Ottawa's Corel, a result of their purchase last year of the venerable WordPerfect product line. This week, Lotus's SmartSuite, now owned by IBM, takes a turn.

Of the Big Three suites, SmartSuite has the smallest market share; with five per cent of the sales, it's almost not there at all. Lotus is doing better gaining a share of the software bundled with new computers. Of course, it comes with most IBM models, but it has also been showing up with many other brands' new machines.

The poor sales are too bad -- SmartSuite 97 is a good product.

Like its competitors, it bundles a WordProcessor (WordPro), a spreadsheet (the software classic 1-2-3), and a presentation package called Freelance Graphics. Unlike the Corel and Microsoft bundles, SmartSuite 97 doesn't require you to pay extra to get a database: Lotus Approach is included in the basic package. There's also Organizer, a personal information manager, and assorted minor stuff.

The individual products in the bundle include a number of winners. WordPro is a complete workover of the AmiPro software included in earlier SmartSuite versions. Like its predecessor, it remains the best product in its class for mixing text and graphics -- its use of frames gives it much of the power and flexibility of dedicated desktop publishing programs. The new version has added features to better keep up with WordPerfect and Microsoft Word; it too, for example, has real-time spell-checking (my personal favourite of the new generation's features). All of the added features, however, have resulted in a product that's slower than the old AmiPro, though this year's WordPro is perkier than last year's original.

Freelance Graphics is a powerful and easy-to-learn presentation program, and Organizer, which looks just like a standard address book, is perhaps the easiest program around for keeping calendar and address information.

The database, Approach, lacks some of the power of Corel's Paradox or Microsoft's Access, but it is far easier to use, aside from not costing extra. What's new is the ability to provide an easy way to access data on big DB2 databases.

For several versions of SmartSuite, 1-2-3 has lagged behind. It had remained an old, 16-bit program in a suite that was increasingly filled with more powerful, 32-bit updates. Finally, Lotus has come up with a 32-bit version, making SmartSuite 97 completely 32-bit. 1-2-3 and Approach are linked together: each calls the other for what it does best.

1-2-3 includes mapping, outlining, and a nice new AutoTotal feature: type 'Total' in a cell, and 1-2-3 creates the correct summation formulas for nearby columns of numbers.

The products share design features as well: common toolbar icons, SmartMaster wizards for instant page layout choices, and a handy InfoBox, which is a floating tabbed dialogue box featuring easy formatting control. All products can be easily opened using Lotus's SmartCenter, an easily customizable program launcher. It features drawers for frequently used documents, folders, and user-friendly Wizards which simplify tasks, and a new drawer for favourite Internet sites, where users can store Netscape Navigator bookmarks and Microsoft Internet Explorer favourites.

Internet features are built into the suite's applications as well: each can open or save files to Web or FTP sites, for example, and word processor documents, spreadsheet ranges, presentations, and database reports can be saved in Web-page HTML format. You can embed hypertext links in WordPro documents, and can even use a SmartMaster template to build a home page.

Lotus has been focusing on groupwork, optimizing software to allow teams to work on individual projects. This remains one of SmartSuite's strengths.

Individual programs include Version Managers, to track changes in multiple versions of a document. TeamMail, TeamReview, and TeamConsolidate features allow documents to be distributed, commented on, and drawn together across a workgroup. Lotus, of course, is hoping that you'll use its Notes product on your network, and has programmed tight integration between SmartSuite and Notes.

If you're a current Microsoft Office or WordPerfect user, you probably won't find any features here that cry out, "Buy me!" If you're currently using Lotus Notes or 1-2-3, however, this suite makes the most sense for you. And if you're one of the few business users who don't currently have one of the office suite products on your hard drive, SmartSuite 97 is definitely worth evaluating. To make that easier, Lotus has promised a free CD evaluation copy, good for 45 days' use. Details aren't out as this writing, but check with Lotus on the Internet at www. if you are interested.*

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