Last year, SmartSuite 96 brought most of the Lotus family into the 32-bit world. SmartSuite 97 pulls the recalcitrant two from the previous mob into line: 1-2-3 and Organizer.
What it doesn't do, though, is provide a major overhaul for the rest.
There are some very positive features, but this isn't quite the breakthrough release I'd expected.
After the negligible documentation of the previous version it was good to get back to a respectable book, providing a better overview of how the suite works together. It's also good to see the very attractive SmartCenter has got even better.
This floating toolbar in the form of cabinet drawers with dividers has an impressive new Internet feature. Open the Internet drawer and each tab shows a web page. It can be refreshed automatically on a regular basis and stays with you until you shut down Windows. You don't need to stay on-line all the time. The special pages, such as news headlines, are rather disappointing as they haven't been internationalised, but you can put in as many pages as you like to have an up-to-date reference straight on the desktop.
Sadly, my attempt to check out the PC Week home page exposed one of the product's limitations: SmartCenter uses an old browser engine that won't show the latest page formats (See screen grab).
As before, the calendar and address sections of SmartCenter tie neatly into Organizer. The reminder section doesn't, which is a pain, but does have the ability to drag an entry on to the desktop. Another addition is a dictionary and thesaurus, the real sort where you can look up the definitions of a word. For some reason, while the thesaurus was UK English, the dictionary wasn't.
Across the suite, the presence of the Internet is more obvious than ever.
Where it was just creeping into SmartSuite 96, this version brings it to the fore. There's Navigator and Internet Explorer in the box and each application has some degree of Internet awareness.
The big four of 1-2-3, WordPro, Approach and Freelance have facilities to work with files on the Internet, plus improved web publishing. Approach includes a web database with a web OCX to provide structured browsing.
Even Organizer has built-in links to web help sites and the ability to embed a web document in its notepad section.
Scripts with everything
The inclusion of LotusScript in all the major applications makes a lot of sense.
This Visual Basic compatible language makes it practical to knock up applications from your SmartSuite components. Don't be put off by the "script" name. LotusScript is a sophisticated object oriented Basic with plenty of muscle. The development environment for LotusScript has a split window with a handy reference to the language, WordPro classes and other OLE objects in the lower half. This browser will paste a reference into your code, preventing mistypes, although the development environment is rather dated when set alongside the latest VB equivalent.
1-2-3 has had the biggest workover, but it seems less impressive than it should because it is mostly about falling into line with the rest.
A good example would be team computing, where the familiar TeamMail, TeamReview and TeamConsolidate provide workmanlike support to the everyday tasks of sharing information and collating responses.
A nice touch in this area is version support. Instead of having document-wide versioning, 1-2-3 can display different versions of a range on a sheet. This makes it simple to identify a set of information, mail it to a group of people using TeamReview, then bring it back in with Team-Consolidate to display both the original and the new version. What it doesn't do, though, is highlight changes. I was also disappointed that when a reviewer sets up a cell comment to explain their changes, it gets lost in the consolidation - a real pity.
1-2-3's user interface has been brought into line with other suite applications, bringing a common menu structure and the ubiquitous InfoBox, the floating tool palette that gives access to most common formatting requirements in a single box. There is also very pretty outlining (though it's clumsy to set up), and a nice feature that runs across a table adding up columns and rows when you type Total into the appropriate cell. Probably the weakest aspect of the user interface is the limited right mouse context menus.
I was surprised Lotus hasn't borrowed the Microsoft trick of using a right mouse drag to provide a modified action - it's a godsend for copying ranges of cells in spreadsheets. Similarly, I missed multilevel undo.
A specific glitch that proved irritating was the limitation on what you can type into the tab of a sheet. You can't use a back-slash or dash which rules out having a sheet labelled 96/7 - a real pain. Again, playing catch-up has brought proper OLE support, plus the real benefit of LotusScript.
One aspect of bringing proper programming to 1-2-3 that perhaps has been hidden by the broader implications of scripting is that you can now write your own @ functions without resorting to a special toolkit, a good example of getting real productivity gains from small effort if you produce a frequently used function.
The Filofax-like PIM has finally slipped the clutches of UK firm Threadz, which gave it up to Lotus last year before retiring into the countryside to think up some new product.
The change of hands doesn't seem to have made much difference, but then moving Organizer to 32-bit hasn't resulted in any great advances. Probably most significant is that the notebook section can at last use rich text formats, and has much more flexible object embedding.
There's also a new diary page, with time slots and draggable events, which makes managing your time a bit more simple. Telephone dialling is handled through Windows, so you don't need to tell Organizer about the modem again.
Apart from the consolidation of LotusScript and Internet features, it's hard to find much to get excited about elsewhere. Certainly the HTML editing in WordPro is better than it was, though it uses a particularly clumsy toolbar taking up more than twice the depth of a normal one.
User interface consistency goes out of the window here. Right-clicking the toolbar does nothing. In fact there's no obvious way of getting rid of it.
Spell checking has a similar beefy bar, but at least there's a Done button to dispose of it. As before, spell checking is a background activity, but it's best not done with the bar up as there are all sorts of nasty twitches and each word is considered misspelled until it's finished.
Freelance, like 1-2-3, has gained the InfoBox and more team support too.
And Approach probably benefits more than most of the applications from the addition of LotusScript, although it hasn't got the feeling of being a programming environment in the way that Access has.
Too little too late?
There's nothing wrong with the enhancements in SmartSuite, but equally there's nothing innovative, nothing new to give the product an edge. And that's what is desperately needed when you lag so far behind market leader Microsoft Office.
There are some real opportunities to take team computing further and to build on the exciting concepts in SmartCenter, but it looks like we're waiting for SmartSuite 98.
It might sound crazy, but if I were Lotus I'd give serious consideration to abandoning the rest of SmartSuite and developing SmartCenter into the application that everyone wants. Just a thought.
SmartSuite 97 is priced at #399. Lotus 01784 455445, web site www.lotus.com
VERDICT: SmartSuite 97
Too little too late?
- Improved web support
- 1-2-3 brought in line - Powerful scripting
- Group support remains strong
- Not keeping up on user interface
- Minimal innovation.
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