The Lotus 1-2-3-compatible GEM spreadsheet
By Matt G. Loveless
START Consulting Editor
In the world of IBM spreadsheets, Lotus 1-2-3 is the name of the game. It makes sense, then, that 1-2-3 compatibility would earn high marks for an ST spreadsheet. But to ST owners, mere emulation of an IBM program is like a slap in the face--with the ST's mousebased GEM interface, a simple conversion of a text-and-keyboard program seems not only archaic but counter-productive.
VIP Technologies learned this when they released the first version of their Lotus-compatible ST spreadsheet, VIP Professional. The reviews were clear: It was a solid program and closely matched the Lotus standard, but it needed a GEM interface. Like any good company interested in improving its market position, VIP revised the program to use GEM. The result: the same high-quality spreadsheet with a greatly improved user interface.
If you're familiar with Lotus 1-2-3, you will immediately feel at home with Professional. You can type in any Lotus slash-command (as they are called because each command is preceded with a slash character) and it will perform exactly as it would on 1-2-3. But Professional also allows access to all spreadsheet functions through the mouse and drop-down menus.
Unfortunately, Professional's mouse-and-menu interface is just another way of performing Lotus commands--it's still just a GEM veneer. On the plus side, this lets Professional maintain much of the Lotus "look and feel." But personally, I never thought much of the Lotus command structure in the first place. An interface that uses it, mousedriven or not, doesn't impress me greatly.
The Professional spreadsheet appears inside a GEM window (see Figure 1). Below the window is the spreadsheet Control Panel, which gives you status information--the contents of the current cell, cursor location, CapsLock status and entry mode. You may also move around the spreadsheet using the arrows in the lower left corner, recalculate, get help, or start drawing a graph from the Control Panel.
Although the Control Panel is very useful and time-saving, it takes up approximately one-sixth of the screen. That, combined with the space needed for the window's controls and the GEM menu bar, reduces the visible portion of the spreadsheet to 13 rows on a color system (15 rows in monochrome). This isn't crippling, but it can be frustrating when you are porting spreadsheets from Lotus 1-2-3 that are designed assuming you have a full-screen display.
VIP Professional sports the full complement of Lotus 1-2-3's calculation facilities. These include the standard math operations, of course, as well as sophisticated financial calculations, trigonometric functions, lookup tables, constants (such as Pi), and time/date variables. It also supports a wide range of logical operations such as and, or, not, greater than, less than, and related items.
Built into both Lotus 1-2-3 and VIP Professional is the ability to create two-dimensional graphs such as bar charts, line charts and pie charts. The graphing facility is flexible and sophisticated, yet it can be as simple to use as specifying a range of data to graph. Professional also lets you print graphs on your printer, but it only works with printers supported from the GEM Desktop. This limits you to Epson-compatible printers, unless you have a special printer driver for your printer (like the ones you can generate with Tom Hudson's printer-driver program from the Summer 1986 START).
Professional also duplicates 1-2-3's macro facility. These spreadsheet macros allow you to automate multistep functions. The macro facility is fairly sophisticated, approaching the complexity of a high-level programming templates for Lotus 1-2-3 that will actually walk you through your data entry and, at a keypress, graph the data, do simple analysis or massage the numbers into some more useful form--and Professional's Lotus compatibility lets you use them all.
LOTUS 1-2-3 AND VIP PROFESSIONAL
Because VIP Professional is completely file-and function-compatible with the IBM PC version of Lotus 1-2-3, you can also use spreadsheets you create with Professional with Lotus. In fact, if you have an IBM-compatible with a 3-1/2 inch drive, or an ST with a 5-1/4-inch drive connected to it, you can use the same disk in both machines. This file compatibility also allows you to download .WKS (Lotus worksheet files) from bulletin boards and online services. On CompuServe, for example you can join the Lotus SIG (type GO LOTUS) and download spreadsheets that do everything from manage a small business's accounting to calculating the pressure capacity of pneumatic valves.
There are also many books on using Lotus 1-2-3, building Lotus spreadsheets and programming Lotus macros--you'll find them in the computer books section of most well-stocked bookstores. Almost anything you read in such books will work with VIP Professional; Professional's manual even offers a bibliography.
PROBLEMS AND CAVEATS
But, alas, Professional is not perfect. In compromising between keyboard and mouse, VIP made some sacrifices and some less-than-desirable design decisions. Scrolling, in particular, is slow. According to the manual, this is because of the ST's bit-mapped display, but I don't buy that; scrolling is only this slow if you don't optimize screen up-dates. In a $250 product such as Professional, I would hope for at least this much. Fortunately, moving around the spreadsheet using the scroll bars and the express icon is straightforward and simple.
Another problem: scattered throughout Professional are the annoying vestiges of Lotus's IBM heritage. For example, to select a file in Professional you don't use the standard GEM item selector box; instead, you must actually type in the name of the file manually.
VIP Professional also has a few bugs, though fortunately most of them are not serious. However, Professional did crash more than once for me. It is best to play it safe by saving your spreadsheet often, especially when you're doing very large copy operations.
The manual is thorough, but it's a bit dry and wordy, making it hard to look up specific information quickly. Fortunately, there is a quick-reference sheet included. Finally, on an unexpanded 520ST, Professional doesn't leave much room for you to work with. VIP recommends at least one megabyte of RAM--an expanded 520, a 1040, or a Mega ST.
Bugs and problems aside, VIP Professional is a solid program. It comes on single-sided disks with help files and sample macros and spreadsheets. It's not copy protected and it easily installs on a hard disk.
All in all, Professional is a good spreadsheet that does what it claims, bringing Lotus compatibility to the ST. Its only major drawback is the $249 price tag. That's about what you'd pay for Lotus 1-2-3 on an IBM, but it may be a bit steep for most ST owners. If all you need is a spreadsheet, you should carefully examine the other programs on the market.
But if you need a full-featured Lotus-compatible spreadsheet, VIP is the only way to go.
VIP Professional, GEM version 1.2. VIP Technologies, 132 Aero Camino, Santa Barbara, CA 93117. (805) 962-8815. Available from ISD Marketing, Inc., P.O. Box 3070, Markham Industrial Park, Markham, Ontario, Canada L3R 6G4. (416) 479-1880. $249.95