Lotus' new SmartSuite

Rival software vendors Lotus Development Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Corel Corp. have heaped more features on their office suites in attempts to top one another. While some of the extras provide improvements, others can impede the performance of the applications that government users depend on to do their jobs.

For SmartSuite Millennium Edition Release 9.0, Lotus risks frustrating government users by burying its flagship 1-2-3 spreadsheet in an avalanche of new features that Lotus added to defeat Microsoft Office in a war of one-upmanship. The desire to continually add more features is understandable because most reviews are won and lost based on quantitative scores awarded for features. But it is worrisome when the one-time "killer app," Lotus 1-2-3, is obscured by the host of add-ons. Nonetheless, Lotus has made substantive improvements over SmartSuite 97. And some of the add-ons are potentially useful.

Despite the perception that Microsoft Office has shut out competing office suites, the Navy and the Marine Corps are among Lotus' biggest federal customers, said Kathy Wilson, marketing communications manager for Lotus' government sales and marketing division. But neither service has standardized on SmartSuite, she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, has standardized agencywide on the combination of Lotus Notes and SmartSuite— a combination that lets EPA employees exploit all of SmartSuite's group scheduling features.

SmartSuite is indeed packed with features. The CD-ROM from Lotus includes the Word Pro word processor, Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, Freelance Graphics presentation graphics package and Approach database. In addition, Lotus bundles the following: a personal information manager, Organizer 4.1; an e-mail application, Lotus Mail; a World Wide Web page development tool, FastSite; and a screen-capture utility, ScreenCam.

Lotus also has a central application, called SmartCenter, which runs on the Windows desktop. The SmartCenter toolbar stretches across the top or, optionally, the bottom of the screen and uses the metaphor of a filing cabinet to provide quick access to SmartSuite's applications, reference materials or Internet-supplied news and information.

SmartCenter taps information in Organizer to put phone list and calendar information closer to the Windows desktop. Organizer 4.1 adds improved Internet integration, with features such as Easy Clip, Travel Information System and Zip2 SmartIcons. The Easy Clip icon automates the collection of information from sources such as e-mail to create an Organizer address, appointment, task or Notepad page. The Travel Information System helps users book flights and make hotel and car reservations. Zip2 SmartIcons provide instant connections to the Zip2 Maps and Directions Web site and the Zip2 Yellow Pages Web site.

The latest version of SmartCenter includes an Internet "drawer" that provides PointCast-like news, stock quotes and other regularly updated information. And users can maximize folders contained in the drawers to full-screen for a better look at the contents. You can consider SmartCenter as an application that provides centralized access to other applications and offers some features of its own or as a resource hog, depending on your disposition.

The same could be said of the most unusual feature in SmartSuite Millennium Edition: IBM ViaVoice Gold, which lets users issue spoken commands to Word Pro and 1-2-3 using a supplied headset microphone. With enough training of the software to the user's voice— and a fast-enough PC— this application could grow from being a curious add-on to a way of life for nontypists. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 and Netscape Communications Corp.'s Navigator 4.0 are also on the CD.

Easy Installation

Installation is a snap with an auto-run program that launches upon insertion of the CD into the drive. The CD is intended for network administrators and stand-alone users, offering either scripted, unattended network installations or quick, virtually automatic installation on PCs. Lotus tried to resolve a past user complaint by letting customers choose to run applications from the CD if, for instance, they do not want to clog a notebook computer's hard drive with the applications.

Some confusion, however, is introduced by the installation programs for ViaVoice and the Internet browsers. SmartSuite's installation program volunteers to reboot the computer and then hands off the installation process to these other installation programs, which run first. The programs prompt users to let them restart the computer, but it is not clear whether a yes or no now might foul up the operation.

The company bundles Lotus-Script, a programming language similar to Visual Basic, and provides easy access to its tools and the resulting macros and programs. Meanwhile, existing Word Pro, 1-2-3 and Approach macros will still run.

Overall consistency between applications has improved, with excellent continuity in menus from one application to the next. All the applications incorporate Internet and collaborative workgroup features. Word Pro has the most new features of all the basic programs in the suite.

Support for Rival Programs

Perhaps in response to criticism in past reviews, Word Pro now boasts menus and a button bar that users can customize. Users can choose to use the menus from Word or WordPerfect if they are more familiar with those programs, or administrators can concoct custom menu options designed to keep users out of trouble.

In an acknowledgment of the prevalence of its competitors' products, Word Pro and 1-2-3 open and save files in their Word and Excel formats automatically. This prevents the annoyance of accidentally overwriting someone else's file in a different file format. And Freelance Graphics can now open PowerPoint and Harvard Graphics files directly.

Word Pro's File Open dialog box still lacks a find function as included in Word. And Word Pro does not provide on-the-fly spelling, although it does automatically correct common typos. Lotus claims that Word Pro creates automatic hot links for Web addresses, but the Word Pro we tested did not do this. On the contrary, the spell-check still flags www.etc.com as a potential misspelling. On the plus side, Word Pro gained more desktop publishing features with the ability to automatically flow text around inserted clip art and to rotate objects on a page.

Collaborative Links

Word Pro, 1-2-3 and Approach all feature Lotus' Team Computing collaborative computing links:

* TeamMail lets users mail the document they are working on without launching an e-mail program.

* TeamReview lets users route a document to a group of users, each with assigned editing privileges.

* TeamConsolidate helps users combine revised documents into a final version.

* TeamShow lets users show a presentation over a network

* TeamSecurity controls access to Approach and Word Pro files on the network.

SmartSuite applications let users save documents in Hypertext Markup Language or jDoc (Java) format for viewing by Web browsers, with accurate reproduction of the original layout. The applications also can open and save files in Notes databases. The FastSite Web page creator lets users easily convert existing documents into Web-friendly formats. It also works with Lotus Domino, which is a Notes application that helps users manage Web documents.

Organizer also features collaborative capabilities, but its group scheduling depends on Lotus Notes and will not work without Notes. In addition to the Notes and Domino integration, SmartSuite works with IBM Corp.'s Tivoli TME systems management product for remote distribution and upgrades.

A Lack of Support

Lotus decided to outsource its documentation to the known authority in the field, IDG Books Worldwide's ...For Dummies series. (IDG Books is a sister company to Federal Computer Week.)

SmartSuite for Dummies is the primary reference book in the box, and it is helpful, but Lotus also encloses a confusing array of booklets, guides, pamphlets, brochures and everything short of illuminated manuscripts covering different components in SmartSuite. Everything is documented, but it is a little disjointed.

The company's technical support crew needs to become more familiar with the Millennium-vintage SmartSuite because the company has been selling it since June. When we placed anonymous phone calls, we found that the support technicians did not have the Millennium versions of applications running on their machines, so they had to leave the phone to use a machine that had the Millennium version. They also had mixed results in getting the right answer to questions about new features. Hold times were virtually non-existent, but it still took 10 minutes or so on a long-distance call to get a question answered.

Federal government customers who already are SmartSuite97 users will get a free upgrade to the Millennium version if they bought the annual license with maintenance, which is the preferred way to buy the product, according to Lotus.

For those users, obviously, it would be good to get the latest and greatest edition for free. Likewise, die-hard 1-2-3 users should consider upgrading to the whole suite because of the improved integration with the other applications.

Lotus has made it easy for customers who are familiar with Word and WordPerfect to use Lotus' word processor, thanks to the ability to emulate those programs' menus and read and write their files. So while customers may not actually switch from Office to SmartSuite, it will be easier for the two to coexist in one office.

Finally, for the rare buyer who does not already have an older version of a suite installed, Office remains the industry standard, but Lotus provides many more potentially useful goodies and great compatibility.

-- Carney is a contributing technology writer based in Herndon, Va. He can be reached at DanCarney@compuserve.com.

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