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COMPUTER FILE / Richard O'Reilly

HAL Lets English Do the Talking

November 24, 1986|Richard O'Reilly | Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Ididn't quite know what to expect when Lotus called and offered to bring Bill Gross, the creator of HAL, to my office to give me a demonstration of his new program.

HAL works with Lotus 1-2-3 to let the user run the popular spreadsheet by typing commands in English phrases such as "graph January to March" instead of going through the numerous steps required from the command menu at the top of the screen.

I've tested software in the past that accepts English phrases, but usually I find that such programs run faster and are actually easier to use when you rely on the program's native command structure and bypass the English command function.

It didn't take Gross very long, however, to capture my interest. He's written a program that greatly enhances the usefulness of Lotus.

Saying that HAL makes Lotus easier to use is like saying that dining out is easier than running a restaurant. What we're talking about here is opening Lotus to an entirely new class of users--people who are computer-naive and who prefer to stay that way. That's the real mass market.

HAL's premise is very simple. It lets you concentrate on what you want Lotus to do, not how to get Lotus to do it. For instance, typing "total all columns" will cause Lotus to draw a dashed line at the bottom of each column, create a formula for each column to obtain its sum and then execute the formula. Doing that the normal way could take a lot of keystrokes (depending on the number and length of the columns) plus the expertise to know which keys to push.

Teach 10,000 Words

The program understands 2,000 words describing spreadsheet functions, and it instantly knows the names of all the columns and rows of the spreadsheet you are using.

You also have the ability to teach HAL about 10,000 other words, which will be ideal for creating specialized applications utilizing their own vocabularies--medical, legal, scientific and pharmaceutical applications, for instance.

In use, HAL quickly makes its best guess of what you want to do and does it, so that you can see the results. If it's wrong, you can easily return to where you were and try again with a different command.

HAL runs on IBM and compatible personal computers, just like Lotus, and works with all versions of Lotus. It has a retail price of $150 and should be arriving on dealers' shelves about now.

It takes an extra 108 kilobytes of random access memory beyond that required by Lotus, and the company suggests a minimum of 512K in your computer to use it. But really you should have 640K. If you have more, that's OK, too, because HAL can use extra memory.

HAL does not alter Lotus nor the spreadsheet files that it creates. But it does interact with the program, which allows it to run extremely fast. By forming such a close relationship with Lotus, however, HAL does let you make Lotus do things it could not otherwise do. The most tantalizing of these new functions is "undo." All you have to do is tap the backspace key while you are using HAL and it causes Lotus to return your spreadsheet to the condition it was in before the last command was executed.

That feature alone will save countless hours of reconstruction efforts for all those users who make a mistake at one time or another. It also is great for doing a series of "what if" analysis of your data, returning you to the same starting point each time.

Another way HAL will change the way you work with Lotus is its ability to link spreadsheets so that a change in one will update the others. The advantage of smaller spreadsheets is they use less memory and they're easier to manage. Yet by being linked you can accomplish just as much as you could with one giant spreadsheet.

The smallest unit in a spreadsheet is called a cell, which is where individual figures, names, labels or formulas are stored. The validity of the computations made in a spreadsheet depend on the accuracy of the formulas stored in those cells. A useful feature is HAL's ability to highlight all the cells that contain formulas and to list those formulas on the screen or printer, making it much easier to check their accuracy than Lotus by itself allows.

But that's just a small part of what HAL can do to verify and maintain the integrity and accuracy of your spreadsheets. It can highlight or list all the cells that feed information into other cells, and it can do the same for all cells whose value is dependent on other cells. This makes it easy to see if a formula refers to an improper cell for its computations.

The most powerful of these auditing commands is "show relations," which gives an English description of the relationships between all the data within the spreadsheet. Again, the purpose is to make it easy to find any formula that is out of place or makes erroneous references to other cells. For instance, in a spreadsheet of baseball statistics, HAL could describe a relationship such as "batting average equals hits divided by times at bat."

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