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New 1-2-3 Was Worth Waiting For

June 29, 1989|Lawrence J. Magid and Lawrence J. Magid | LAWRENCE J. MAGID is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

By the time Lotus Development Corp. came out with the latest version of its best-selling spreadsheet program 1-2-3 last week--18 months behind its original schedule--a number of customers had switched to other products. They bought rival programs such as Microsoft's Excel, Borland International's Quattro and Computer Associates' SuperCalc5 for performing financial and other calculations.

Lotus' sales didn't dry up, however. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company continued to dominate the spreadsheet market even though its offering was out of date.

Overall, Lotus claims that since 1-2-3 was introduced in 1983 it has sold more than 5 million copies, which a company official says is more than 70% of the spreadsheet market for IBM-compatible personal computers. And with its newest version, 1-2-3 Release 3, Lotus' product is nearly as impressive as its market strength.

Spreadsheet programs are used to perform calculations on numbers that are organized into rows and columns. You might use a spreadsheet, for example, to develop a budget or sales forecast. When you revise a figure or modify a formula, all numbers affected by the change are revised as well.

The new program is relatively easy for 1-2-3 loyalists to use. Despite hundreds of new features and improvements, Release 3 looks and feels very much like the old 1-2-3. Every command I tried worked just as it does in the previous version. The only new commands you have to learn are for new features, a major attraction for people who have spent time and money learning to use earlier versions of the program.

The program's improvements include the capacity to work with several files or work sheets at a time. Previously, you could load only one into memory. Further, a single file can now have up to 256 separate work sheets, and the program can display up to three work sheets on the screen at any one time. Having more than one work sheet on the screen can be very helpful when you need to refer to data that is not part of the work sheet you're developing.

It's now possible for a formula in one work sheet to refer to a formula or data in another. In the past, it was sometimes necessary to create very large work sheets to store all the necessary data and formulas. That could become unwieldy, making it difficult to locate necessary information. Data can now be neatly organized into separate work sheets, all of which can be stored together in a single 1-2-3 file.

New Version Speedier

The ability to create linked work sheets is very handy for those who must consolidate data from several sources. If you were creating a national sales forecast, for example, you could have data from each region in a separate work sheet. A separate summary work sheet would have formulas to combine the datafrom each region. Any changes in a regional sheet would be automatically carried to the summary sheet.

Users who work with large or complex spreadsheets have complained that 1-2-3 is too slow. The new version is speedier because it recalculates only those formulas or cells affected by a change in the work sheet. Also, the program is now able to calculate in the background while the user works with the spreadsheet. These speed improvements are not noticeable with small or simple work sheets but can be substantial with a great number of formulas or a lot of data.

I also like the program's new "undo" feature that allows users to reverse any recent changes, as well as the new search and replace feature that can automatically find and change data or formulas.

1-2-3 is so named because it performs three major functions: spreadsheet, database management and graphics. In the new version, database and graphics functions have been improved as well.

The program is rarely used for large corporate databases such as personnel records, which often are maintained with other database software that runs on minicomputers or mainframe systems. But 1-2-3 is an excellent tool to analyze or play "what if" games with such data.

With earlier versions, it is usually necessary to go through some elaborate conversion process or, worse, reenter the data on files created by other database programs. Now, 1-2-3 can get data directly from the files. Access to databases requires special configuration files, called "drivers." Lotus provides a driver for dBase III and anticipates that additional database drivers will be developed by other companies.

1-2-3 has always been able to display charts and graphs, but previously the selection of graph styles was limited. The new 1-2-3 displays stunning graphics in your choice of colors. You can mix graphs and numbers on the same screen and watch the graph update itself as the work sheet is modified. You can also mix graphics, text and numbers on the same printed page.

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