One of the greatest challenges facing software publishers today is creating a single sophisticated program that includes all the functions one normally does on a microcomputer--word processing, spreadsheet, database, graphics and telecommunications.
A recent entrant into that competition is Enable, published by the Software Group, Northway Ten Executive Park, Ballston Lake, N.Y. 12019, which lists for $695 and runs on the IBM PC and compatibles.
Enable has the look of a terrific program, but its initial version has some bugs and is burdened with a few design flaws that dull an otherwise sparkling package.
What is good about Enable is its simple, no-gimmicks approach to program integration. Each of its five separate applications is accessible from a common menu screen, yet files or portions of files created in one can be readily merged into another.
For instance, a report could be created that contained entries from the spreadsheet, plus entries from the database, along with a chart produced by the graphics module.
Most of the time you are also able simultaneously to have open as many as eight files from any of the applications in eight windows whose size and location on the screen you can adjust.
It appears that the Software Group essentially cloned the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet as a starting point and then created the other programs to go along, utilizing Lotus' easy-to-use command format in which a single line of options is displayed across the top of the screen. Each option leads to one or more sub-menus until the desired function is reached.
The spreadsheet works quite nicely, and Lotus users will feel right at home with it. It will accept Lotus, VisiCalc and DIF (data interchange format) spreadsheet files and will save its own files in any of those three formats in addition to its own.
The database module was obviously inspired by dBase II and will accept dBase II files without conversion. But Enable makes its database much easier to use by leading users through well-designed questionnaires as they build their database and its various input and report forms.
There are some nice touches, such as a provision that not only tests for minimum and maximum acceptable numeric values in a database entry but also for "reasonable" entries as well. If an entry is within the minimum-maximum range but outside the reasonable range, a warning message will flash on the screen.
Information from one database file can be incorporated into other database files, making it easy to link a complex set of data so that a change in one database can update the others.
The questionnaire method is carried over to the telecommunications module, helping users make the right choices in the complex task of establishing telecommunications with another computer.
Graphics abilities include two- and three-dimensional bar charts, stacked bar charts, pie charts and line graphs. A choice of eight text fonts is available for titles, labels and legends.
Enable's weak link is word processing, which must have been designed by a committee, a very large committee whose individual members were appeased by the inclusion of his or her favorite command sequence.
It is strangling on commands. There are 48 different commands for moving the cursor and 134 other word-processing function commands. The reference card designed to overlay the IBM keyboard and display the various program commands requires 31 lines of very small type.
Many of the commands require four keystrokes. Saving a file takes three, unless you want to save it in a non-standard format, which requires six. (In addition to Enable format, you can save in straight ASCII--the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, which is usually used for telecommunications--or in WordStar, Easy Writer or Volkswriter.)
In return for complexity, you get a lot of frills--automated footnote creation, proportional spacing, special characters for drawing boxes or maps or writing foreign characters, mail merge (used in form letters) and automated tables of contents and indexes, which are promised in the next update. (The first update is free, with others promised at the rate of three a year for $95 annually.)
Unlike integrated programs such as Symphony and Framework, which are memory hogs, Enable will run with as little as 192 kilobytes of random-access memory and can be used on a machine with two floppy drives, although it runs much better on a hard disk-equipped computer.
Because of the way the programs are written, floppy disk users must make a disk swap 10 seconds after starting up the program and again when they ask for the menu item called HELP. The program comes on four disks, one of which is a key disk that must be in the computer whenever the program is running and cannot be duplicated.
In an unforgivable act of lunacy, the Software Group also requires new users to undergo the hassle of printing out 37 pages of instruction updates before they can even begin to properly install the program. At $695 a copy, the company ought to be able to afford a photocopy machine to print out the instructions for the purchaser.
Once past those hurdles, however, the manuals--five slim spiral booklets--are easy to manage and read.
The bottom line is that Enable holds a lot of promise; the publishers have a toll-free number and encourage users to ask questions and make suggestions. Two or three updates from now, it may be great.