Spreadsheets getting cheaper, and easier to use

February 07, 1994|By Lawrence M. Fisher | Lawrence M. Fisher,New York Times News Service

When Borland International Inc. cut the price of its Quattro Pro for Windows spreadsheet last fall to $49 from $495, it expected to pick up a few new users of the product, and so the company went to some lengths to make it easier to use.

But even Borland says it was surprised when market research showed that 41 percent of sales were to first-time spreadsheet buyers.

Of course, Borland's recent publication of that number immediately drew haughty rejoinders from the spreadsheet leaders, Lotus and Microsoft, whose spreadsheets for Windows continue to list for $495 (although in many cases can be purchased for something closer to $100).

"Those weren't first-time spreadsheet users, those were first-time spreadsheet owners," said Jeffrey R. Beir, vice president of the Lotus Development Corp.'s spreadsheet division, who ventured that many of Borland's buyers had used spreadsheets at work or had borrowed copies along the way.

Meanwhile, Kathleen Schoenfelder, product manager for the Microsoft Corp.'s Excel spreadsheet, said all that Borland had proved was that if a product is cheap enough, someone will buy it. "Actually," she said, "it's surprising, at that price point, that they didn't get more than 40 percent."

Sniping aside, Borland's price collapse and the novices that the revamped Quattro Pro has attracted, highlight the market's appetite for making the spreadsheet -- that most useful of business computing tools -- easier to use.

Likewise, the latest versions of Microsoft's and Lotus's spreadsheets are based on the assumption that people other than accountants or computer scientists might want to use spreadsheets -- software that lets people analyze all sorts of numbers, whether corporate sales figures or a household budget, and easily determine how a change in any one number or assumption affects all the other data.

After years of loading products with competitive features, the three leading spreadsheets suppliers are now concentrating on "usability," as a way to attract benefit novices and power players alike.

Early spreadsheets, like the pioneering Visicalc in the late 1970s, and the original Lotus 1-2-3, introduced in 1982, were a great leap forward, compared with running financial analysis programs on mainframes and minicomputers.

But they still asked a lot of a user. Confronted with a blank grid of columns and rows, you had to enter not only data, but the formulas and equations that established relationships between the data. The early spreadsheets forced the user to become a programmer, albeit at a fairly rudimentary level.

Features for the audience

In rethinking Quattro Pro for Windows, Borland developers didn't expect this tradition of coercive programming to fly with the $49-a-shot crowd.

"When we were developing the product, we anticipated the pricing and the people it would attract," said Joe Ammirato, group manager of the spreadsheet business unit at Borland. "We thought of features for that audience." What's more, he said, at $49, the company could not afford a lot of calls to customer service.

Perhaps the most friendly of Borland features is a series of templates that remove the need to create new spreadsheets from scratch. Quattro Pro includes 50 "Notebook Templates," which are pre-formatted spreadsheets for common tasks, such as calculating principal and interest on a mortgage. Enter the relevant data, and the program assigns the necessary formulas.

Also unique to Quattro Pro, at least for now, are interactive on-screen tutors, which let you learn to use the software by working with your own data, rather than the canned examples normally supplied with such help screens.

Thus, real tasks can be performed even as the user is being tutored.

Other ease-of-use features in Quattro Pro include "object inspectors," which provide instant explanations of on-screen items at the click of a mouse button, and "experts," which are on-screen dialog boxes that take a user step by step through a procedure, like creating a graph.

Actually, "experts" are a concept copped from Microsoft, which calls them "wizards" and introduced them a few years ago in Excel 3.0. Microsoft also has worked them into other applications like its word processor, Word, and has retained them for its latest spreadsheet, Excel 5.0, which it began shipping late last month.

Excel gets 'Tip Wizard'

New to Excel 5.0 is the "Tip Wizard," which watches how you work and offers advice on how to use the program more efficiently -- like opening a new spreadsheet with a single keystroke, rather than selecting the task from the menu. (If this kind of electronic second-guessing gets annoying -- there are over 700 different tips -- it can be disabled.)

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