Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 160 / JANUARY 1994 / PAGE 100

Improv for Windows 2.1 (spreadsheet software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Stephen Levy

You may never have thought it possible, but there's a whole new way of working with spreadsheets. With Improv for Windows, the new superstar from Lotus, gone are the traditional spreadsheet rows, columns, and cells. In their place you'll find items and groups - and a more efficient way of using and looking at data.

Improv offers a tremendous advantage to those who need more than an electronic version of a paper worksheet. Because of the way it organizes data, Improv is perfect for those who need to organize the same information in a variety of ways. It's also appropriate for people who need to make presentations. By using Improv to create different views of the same data and to place charts created from the data as views, users can actually create a sort of slide show with their data.

With Improv, you have to begin thinking in terms of items and groups. An item consists of a name and all the cells associated with that name. Improv uses the term item to describe both rows and columns for the location of data. if you're accustomed to the traditional spreadsheet structure, this can be a bit confusing until you realize that an item and all of its related cell are not fixed in any row or column.

You also have to be concerned with the concept of dynamic placement of data. In traditional spreadsheets, the data can be dynamic, but the structure of the worksheet is static. With Improv, the data and the placement are both dynamic; that is, you can easily present the information in different ways without rebuilding the entire worksheet. And you can save each of your views within the same worksheet.

This dynamic views function is a powerful tool and is surprisingly simple to use. Imagine a worksheet that lists income, expenses, and profits for a company by regions. These figures are listed by month for each region, so this worksheet would show you the profit per region per month. With Improv, you can easily and quickly create a second view that groups the regions together by month, allowing you a quick comparison of the regions' income, expenses, and profit. The data for each of the items stays together in each view. No matter how you move the categories around, each item's data always remains together. And charting this same information is as simple as selecting the Create Chart option from the menu. Being able to manipulate the data in a worksheet is very handy should you need to present information one way for the sales and marketing department and another way for the accountants.

Improv's paging feature offers another unique way of organizing data. It allows you to highlight specific data and still have other information at your disposal. In our example above, we could easily move the Income/Expense/Profit category into the paging position. This would mean that only one of the three items (income, expenses, or profits) for each of the regions would be displayed at a time. To see any of the other items, you'd just click on the page arrow. Thus, the paging feature allows you to isolate the data you want to emphasize and still be able to page through other information if necessary. You could likewise isolate the months, paging through the data one month at a time. Improv's paging feature is not just interesting; it's also an invaluable timesaver if you need to make a presentation that requires specific data to be highlighted for one group and other data to be highlighted for another. All the while, you'll still have other data handy if you need it when you explain ideas or when your listeners request further details.

Items can also be given style attributes. And when you change the layout of the worksheet by moving a category, the styles stay with the items, regardless of how the worksheet is organized. A full complement of formatting options is available, so you can change the text color, size, style, shading, and so forth.

To make your work even easier, Lotus has included a feature called Quick Menus. These menus give you easy access to common editing commands and other pertinent commands. You invoke Quick Menus by pressing the right mouse button; a standard pull-down menu appears at the mouse pointer - right where you're currently working. This helpful and convenient feature further illustrates the effort Lotus made to make Improv both innovative and easy to use.

And the package doesn't stop there. It offers another unique feature - dynamic general formulas. Unlike formulas in other spreadsheets, formulas in Improv are easy to understand. They are expressed in words, not in cell address notation. A formula such as Profit=lncome-Expenses is much easier to understand (and remember) than +E4-F4. Formulas can apply to a range automatically, so copying them over and over again isn't necessary.

Improv is also self-documenting: The formulas are placed in another pane on the screen in words. When you highlight any cell or item that is the result of a formula, that formula is also highlighted. This allows you to see how the result was derived.

Creating formulas is quick and intuitive. There are a number of ways to begin creating a formula, as Lotus has tried to accommodate the different ways users work with spreadsheets. You can use the menus and choose Create Formula, or if you're a traditionalist, you can press the = or + key to start writing a formula. Improv will supply the beginning of the formula, such as Profit=. Then all you need to do is click on the appropriate items and the Formula Bar.

Improv also includes all the charting tools that spreadsheet users have come to expect. You have 20 different types of charts to pick from: 9 bar charts, 3 line charts, 2 pie charts, 3 area charts, and 3 mixed charts. Among the assortment are both two- and three-dimensional options. Additionally, all of Improv's charts are dynamic, changing as the data in the worksheet changes. It's easy to create a chart, too: You need only select the data you want charted and choose Create Chart, and it's done.

Improv doesn't neglect the powerful, advanced features experienced spreadsheet users will want. For instance, it includes LotusScripts atool for building applications based on Improv or extending Improv's functionality.

Of course, an important consideration when you look at any new spreadsheet is how well it imports data from other spreadsheets. Improv import data easily from other Lotus spreadsheets and from Excel. To import from Quattro Pro for Windows, however, you'll have to save the Quattro Pro file in a format that Improv can understand, such as 1-2-3. You can also import ASCII text files, although the imported text might need some work. Imported spreadsheets help the user of traditional spreadsheets feel right at home by using row and column numbers and letters as item names.

Lotus Improv for Windows 2.1 provides the software market with a unique set of capabilities for building, viewing, and analyzing data. It offers exceptional flexibility for displaying data. Spreadsheet users might find in Improv a new tool that will make their tasks quicker and easier. Those who often have to make data presentations will find Improv meets their needs. Lotus is to be commended for moving spreadsheets a big step forward. Improv's new, easy, and intuitive approach to data is long overdue.