Lotus takes major leap forward with 1-2-3 for Windows COMPUTERS


June 07, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

Like Wayne Gretzky, Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows Release 4 is emerging as a leading candidate for the Comeback of the Year award. The impressive new version of the spreadsheet will reach stores later this month after having been previewed at the recent Spring/Comdex computer show in Atlanta.

Much easier to use than earlier versions of Lotus 1-2-3, this new version -- why don't we call it 1-2-3-4 -- adds features and powers that will be especially interesting for executives who frequently collaborate on financial plans with other workers.

Lotus Development Corp. has long espoused the gospel of work-group computing, but 1-2-3-4 is the first clear example of how the concept can be applied to basic business applications.

Lotus 1-2-3 is believed to be the single most popular personal computer business application in the world, with millions of customers. But Lotus fumbled the transition to Windows, arriving late and with an inferior product, and many users of the DOS version of 1-2-3 switched to the Microsoft Corp.'s Excel or Borland International's Quattro Pro for Windows.

Now Lotus finally has a Windows spreadsheet that holds its own with Excel and Quattro Pro, and even surpasses them in some areas. Of course the competition is not standing still; at Comdex, Borland showed off a very impressive prototype of its next release of Quattro Pro for Windows, and Microsoft told of plans to bring out a new Excel this fall.

"It's going to be a horse race," said Peter Rogers, software industry analyst for the San Francisco investment firm Robertson, Stephens & Co. "One company may come up with something new, but in a couple of weeks the gap closes. The advantages don't last very long."

Lotus, for example, has "borrowed" some ease-of-use features from Excel and some organizing tricks from Quattro Pro. Excel and Quattro Pro are expected to borrow some data analysis tricks from Lotus' other spreadsheet, Improv for Windows.

Improv, originally developed for use on Next Inc. computers, provides users far more power to analyze data than most spreadsheets. While some companies rely on it, Improv is more often employed as a useful supplementary tool. And this poses a tactical problem for Lotus, because its rivals are likely to combine the best of both types of spreadsheets while Lotus remains committed to separate programs.

'On par with Excel'

Lotus' new program "is at least on par with Excel in terms of attention to detail, fit and finish" and features, said William J. Higgs, vice president of software research for Infocorp, a market research company in Santa Clara, Calif. "There are points where one is better, and points where the other is better. Having a better product in some ways, but not in all ways, doesn't automatically make you the dominant player."

Creating successful software "is much more a marketing effort than it was five or 10 years ago," Mr. Higgs said, adding, "Certainly Microsoft has had good products, but its success is at least as much due to marketing as to programming."

To meet the market challenge, Lotus is trying some new tricks. While its previous version of 1-2-3 for Windows was Release 1, it decided to skip 2 and 3, and go straight to 4. The reasoning? The company says this puts the spreadsheet more in step with other Lotus products, but the real reason is probably that rival spreadsheets had higher numbers.

Standing out

Lotus has put 1-2-3-4 in a bright yellow box (a color that will be standard for all Lotus products from now on). Yellow is the most eye-catching retail color, marketers note, and in the boring world of computer software packaging, Lotus will now stand out.

The most important advance is something that Lotus calls version manager, which allows several different people in a group of workers to create their own versions of the same spreadsheet, without overwriting someone else's changes.

A single spreadsheet can provide multiple scenarios, each annotated with the name of the person who created it and the time and date it was most recently done. The version manager maintains a master copy of the spreadsheet and displays, in menu form, all the different scenarios and ranges associated with the file. The viewer can then choose a scenario or review them all.

A separate comment box on the version manager window allows workers to add remarks on why they made changes or created scenarios. Only one worker can modify the file at a given time, however.

The true power of 1-2-3-4's new networking features become apparent when the spreadsheet is shared within an environment created by Lotus' Notes program. Notes is Lotus' ambitious network software that connects workers within an organization and allows them to share and organize information in ways not possible using conventional network software.

Works well with Notes

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