Lotus Development Corp., meeting a challenge from rival products, has added a colorful new face to the basic version of its popular 1-2-3 spreadsheet program.
Unlike the many other versions of Lotus 1-2-3 produced in recent months, Release 2.3 for DOS will work on any IBM XT-compatible computer with at least 512 kilobytes of working memory and 5 megabytes of free space on a hard disk.
Lotus has long been the leading maker of computer spreadsheets, electronic versions of the ledger sheets used by accountants back when "user interface" meant paper and pencil.
More than 5 million copies of 1-2-3 have been sold, and Lotus officials estimate that millions more have been illegally copied. The net effect is that millions of people know the Lotus system of commands and do not particularly care to switch to something different.
Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.3 for DOS comes not a moment too soon. Many Lotus users have waited impatiently for upgrades while rival companies have come out with superior spreadsheets for the PC, notably Microsoft Corp.'s Excel and Borland International Inc.'s Quattro Pro. Release 2.3 does not match those rivals for performance, but it narrows the gap.
The big trend in spreadsheets, as well as in other computer applications, is to replace the character-based typed command systems with graphical interfaces that are easier to operate and that produce more attractive reports.
Until recently, going "graphical" has meant going to Windows, an operating system that works only on newer and more expensive computers. The problem is, there are tens of millions of IBM-style PCs that do not have the necessary processing power or memory to run a true graphical system like Windows.
Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.3 for DOS, like Borland's Quattro Pro 3.0 before it, manages to create a graphical interface that works on average PCs.
The new Release 2.3 does not have all of the power of a true Windows program; it lacks the ability to create so-called 3D work sheets, to exchange data with other programs, to stay on screen in the background while the user works on another program, and so on. Still, it is a definite improvement.
Release 2.3 gives the user a choice between the familiar system of commands and the graphical "what you see is what you get" (wysiwyg, pronounced wizzy-wig) system.
In the wysiwyg mode, commands can be invoked by pointing, clicking and dragging a mouse, and text can be embellished with varied type sizes, styles and colors.
Pictures and charts, including some 200 basic styles, can be placed within a work sheet to illustrate the numbers, making the spreadsheet reports easier for a reader to understand.
Popular features from other spreadsheets have been added, including a print-preview command that lets the user see what the report will look like before it is printed, and a "shrink to fit" command that condenses a wide work sheet to fit onto a single page.
There are some other new features, too. One is a Viewer, which allows the user to peek into spreadsheet files without loading them into memory. Before, the user often had to go through a laborious process of opening a file, browsing in it, closing it, opening another and so forth, until the right data were found.
Another new feature is the Auditor, which allows the user to see all the spreadsheet cells that affect a given formula. (A cell might include, for example, a company's gross sales for baseball bats in June.)
Sometimes one user will create a complex formula to pull data from a variety of cells, and a second user might not know the logic behind the formula. Or, in our case, we may simply forget why we did something a certain way. Auditor saves a lot of time in retracing steps.
As might be expected, Release 2.3 seems to slow down just a bit in its "wysiwyg" mode. In its original character mode, however, it appears to be quicker than earlier versions.
In recent years Lotus has tried to expand its product line with many versions of 1-2-3, each designed to work on a different type of computer.
The company is promising to release new versions for Windows, for the Apple Macintosh, for Sun Microsystems workstations, Digital Equipment Corp. VAX minicomputers, for Next Inc. computers and for the OS/2 operating system.
It already has a separate 1-2-3 product, Release 3.1, for more powerful DOS machines based on the 286, 386 and i486 microprocessors.
It is nice to know that Lotus has not forgotten the humble XT computers. Owners of those older machines can now take advantage of some powerful new spreadsheet features without having to invest in a more powerful computer and an unfamiliar new spreadsheet program.
Release 2.3 has a list price of $495. Registered owners of earlier Lotus versions can upgrade for $150. The program is widely available in stores. Lotus, of Cambridge, Mass., can be reached at (617) 577-8500.