Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is a powerful, sophisticated spreadsheet which runs under Windows and has the potential to overtake Lotus 1-2-3 in the popularity stakes. But how do its features compare with those of its established Macintosh relative? Anthony Meier finds out.

Microsoft’s new spreadsheet program, Excel, looks set to leave Lotus 1-2-3 and its lookalikes well behind in the spreadsheet stakes. It promises to be the most powerful and user-friendly spreadsheet written to date. It is being introduced as the third generation spreadsheet for personal computers, and is designed primarily to run on machines based on the 80286 and 80386 microprocessors. Macintosh users will be familiar with this program already, as a version of Excel has been available for this machine for 24 months or so (see the ‘Function comparison’ box for a comparison between the two versions).

Overview

Excel is a sophisticated piece of software which offers many advanced spreadsheet facilities and programming features, an integrated onsheet database and a wide range of charting and graphing facilities. It is the first spreadsheet in the MS-DOS environment to offer interactive, dynamic linking of worksheets, a one-step automatic macro recorder and high-resolution output. It runs under Microsoft’s Windows 2.0 and takes full advantage of all its facilities, providing multiple worksheets in overlapping windows onscreen, pull-down menus and full mouse operations.

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Excel makes use of the ability of Windows 2 to have a number of spreadsheets open at once. The arrows at the top left size the windows. The most obvious difference from Excel on the Apple Macintosh is the use of colour.

A run-time version of Windows 2.0 is bundled with the program for users without the full version. A version of Excel is also planned for the OS/2 operating system. Windows 2.0 has an identical interface to that of OS/2 with Presentation Manager, so Excel users should find making the transition to that new operating system easy.

The machine I used for the review was a Dell 286 with a 20Mbyte hard disk, EGA card, colour monitor and mouse. I also had an AST card installed which increased the memory from 640K to 2.5Mbytes to give more room for testing large spreadsheets. There is only about 140K available for data on a standard 640K machine.

Installing the program on the hard disk was very simple. It involved inserting the setup disk, typing ‘setup’, and following the instructions given on the screen. These asked for the other disks supplied to be inserted one by one until all the necessary files had been copied across. I was supplied with 14 disks, eight of which contained the files for Excel, the other six were files for run-time Windows.

In use

When the program had been installed and loaded, I found Excel very simple to learn and use. Virtually all of the user-friendly features of the combinations of clicking, double-clicking and dragging.

The mouse can be used to give all the commands and instructions you need in Excel. It saves you from having to learn and type in commands at the keyboard, and makes program operation very fast. You can also keep your eyes on the screen instead of continually glancing at the keyboard. However, keyboard lovers can still use the keyboard instead of the mouse for all the commands and operations they need – even moving and sizing windows. Pressing the ‘Alt’ key makes the menu bar active, then pressing the underlined letter of the menu title you want (or using the cursor key and Return) pulls down that menu. Finally, pressing the underlined letter of the command you want (or using the cursor key and Return) invokes that command. Pressing the ‘Esc’ key cancels the menu selection.

The mouse, however, does make it quick to select a cell, or cells, for data entry – you just move the pointer to the cell you want and click to make it active. You then need to use the keyboard to type your data in. The mouse can also make operations like inserting and deleting rows and columns, and cutting, copying and pasting cells, very fast.

The mouse also comes in handy for entering cell references into formula. Instead of typing in a cell reference, you only need to point and click on the cell in question for its reference to be automatically inserted into the formula. Dragging the pointer across a range of cells inserts that range into the formula. And you can include references to cells on another spreadsheet (linking the spreadsheet) just by clicking on the cells in that other spreadsheet. This saves time setting up formulae and speeds up the creation of models.

Spreadsheet handling with Excel is very impressive. You can have several spreadsheets, charts and macro sheets onscreen at the same time, each one in its own window, like so many pieces of paper. You can shrink or expand the windows, depending on which one you are working on, and you can transfer information easily from one to the other.

Spreadsheets can easily be linked, allowing you to consolidate figures from as many different spreadsheets as desired. Because you can work on many spreadsheets at once, you can see the effects of changes in one worksheet on other linked worksheets immediately on the screen.

Each spreadsheet has a maximum of 16,384 rows by 256 columns, and it is easy to move quickly to any desired location using the mouse on the scroll bars along the sides of each window. Column widths and individual row heights can be adjusted easily with the mouse. Each window has a horizontal and a vertical split bar which you can use to divide the window into a maximum of four panes, to see different parts of a spreadsheet next to each other. You can also open up new windows for the same spreadsheet if this is more convenient. As you are expected to have many windows fighting for space on your screen, there is a window menu which lets you select the window you want to bring to the top of the others.

Functions

Excel has all the features and functions you would expect to find in a top spreadsheet package, such as cell protection, calculation options and zero suppression. It has an ‘undo’ feature that can reverse your last command if you make a mistake, and it also has a matching ‘repeat’ feature that you can use to repeat your last command.

Excel only recalculates those cells that have changed since the last calculation, thus speeding calculation. It also uses ‘background’ calculation which lets you continue working while it recalculates. And it doesn’t require you to wait until all the cells have been calculated before you can start working again, which is nice.

Excel has more functions than both Lotus 1-2-3 version 2 and Excel for the Macintosh. The box on page 140 gives a comparison, although functions alone should not be used as a guide to a program’s overall capabilities.

Many of Excel’s functions are similar to those of Lotus 1-2-3, so 1-2-3 users should be able to build spreadsheet models with Excel’s functions without too many problems. Some of the interesting new functions provided by Excel are as follows:

  • The ‘information’ function, CELL(type-of-info, reference), returns information about the formatting, location or contents of the upper left cell in ‘reference’. CELL(“width”, F13), for example, would give you the column width of cell F13. CELL(“format”, B12) would give you information on the cell formatting.
  • The text function, CODE(text), returns the numeric ASCII code of the first character in ‘text’. CODE(“Alphabet”), for instance, would equal 65. CODE(B5) would equal 70, where cell B5 contained the text “February”.
  • Excel can be used for working on arrays, which are groups of two or more values that can be used like a single value in formulae and functions. Excel also has matrix functions which can be used for working with these arrays. The matrix function, MMULT(array1,array2), returns the product of two arrays, where both arrays contain only numbers. This might be written as MMULT(A1:B2,D1:E2).

Compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3

Many of Excel’s new users are expected to be previous Lotus 1-2-3 users, and Microsoft has developed tools and functions within Excel to make learning and using the program easier for these users. The features will also help Excel integrate more easily into a Lotus 1-2-3 environment.

For beginners, two-way file compatibility enables spreadsheets to be exchanged between the two programs. Then there is a useful 1-2-3 macro translator that can automatically convert nearly all 1-2-3 macros into Excel macros. A ‘1-2-3 Help’ facility lets users type in the command sequences they would have used in 1-2-3 and automatically gives them the corresponding Excel commands.

Presentation features

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Fonts, type styles and colour can be used to enhance the appearance and logic of a spreadsheet both onscreen and when printed. Debits, for example, could appear in red

Excel’s presentation facilities are very impressive, and provide you with a wide range of screen display and printing options. You can turn the spreadsheet grid on or off, show or hide the row and column headings, switch them between R1C1 and A1 according to your personal preference, and choose between different font types and sizes. You can use up to four different fonts on one worksheet – individual row heights will automatically adjust to accommodate the font sizes you choose. There are 19 number-formatting options which are meant to be used for things like date formats, decimal places, commas and negative brackets.

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An Excel worksheet can be as plain or as detailed as you want, with grid lines and headers being optionally shown in various colours and styles.

Individual cells can be emboldened, underlined or italicised. You can add shading, create boxes or lines around cells or blocks of cells, and control screen colours to enhance the appearance of the screen display or printed document. You could have all the positive figures in a column display automatically as blue, and all negative figures red, for instance. All these facilities help you to produce printed documents that rival word processor output and can be used for final reports and presentations.

There is a page preview facility to let you see a miniature version of your page as it will look when printed out, which is very useful for checking pages before printing them. It is also useful for viewing large spreadsheet models like a map to give you a better idea of what they look like.

Printing

A wide variety of printers and plotters are supported, and your own printer and plotter drivers can be installed during the ‘SETUP’ procedure. High-resolution graphics printers are required if you want to take advantage of the graphics output of the program – a laser printer would be ideal.

Excel includes a sophisticated printer spooler that lets you queue up print jobs, control the printing operation and continue with your work while they print in the background.

Charts

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Charts are created by selecting an area of data and then choosing a chart style option. Charts are automatically updated as the data changes.

Excel has sophisticated charting and graphing facilities. A wide range of charts can be summoned instantly from selected spreadsheet cells and will change shape automatically if the cell contents are changed. You can see a chart in one window change as the data in the spreadsheet window alongside it is altered.

To create a chart from data in your spreadsheet, you first need to select the data you want to chart. This can be done by dragging the mouse across the relevant cells to highlight them, then you select the ‘File New’ command and click on the ‘Chart’ option. This creates a new chart window that automatically contains a default-type chart built up from the values in your highlighted cells.

The program has 44 pre-designed chart formats grouped into seven types of charts: area, bar, column, line, pie, scatter and combination. When any of these is created, the program provides default labels and designs. The charts are highly customisable, however, and most of the parameters can be altered to suit your own requirements. You can alter the colours, add text labels and legends, and scale the chart horizontally or vertically to get it to look just the way you want.

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Many chart styles are available. The ‘help’ system includes a cross-reference to Multi plan and 1-2-3 commands, so users who know what to do in those programs can transfer across.

Auditing & documenting

Excel has very useful auditing and documenting features. These help you check the logic and formulae in your model, track down errors and discrepancies, and document your model for your own reference and for other users. You can attach notes to any cell and view them using the ‘Show Window Info’ command. This command also shows you other information such as the cells that contain references to your active cell (dependents) and the cells that it refers to (precedents).

You can use the ‘Formula Select Special’ command to highlight all the dependents and precedents in the worksheet for easy identification. You can also automatically find all the cells with notes or those containing a particular formula.

These features are a great help when you are creating or amending a spreadsheet model and when you are checking its logic. They reduce the risk of missing important cells and making errors.

Excel has sophisticated cell-naming features, too. You can name each cell in a block of cells automatically by using a combination of the titles in your row and column headings. You can easily find cell references in a spreadsheet and replace them with names, and you can find cell names.

You can define a name which is not attached to a particular cell, but which refers to a value: ‘INFLATION’, for instance, can be defined to be ‘4%’. Then, whenever you use the name in formulae in your spreadsheet (and in other spreadsheets) it will equal 4%.

Macros

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Macros can be created line by line or recorded; this allows Excel to ‘learn’ a process that the user performs. A separate module allows for the conversion of 1-2-3 macros.

Excel has powerful macro facilities which let you pre-program the system to perform calculations and operations automatically. Excel macros have their own programming language and are created on separate macro sheets which are handled in the same way as spreadsheets. The macro commands are typed into cells in a column and, like cells on a spreadsheet, can be deleted, copied and moved around. You can have as many macro sheets as you want, and as many different macros as you can fit on each macro sheet. The macros can then be used with any spreadsheet.

You can incorporate branches and loops into your macro, and control can pass from one macro to another if certain conditions are satisfied. You can create ‘intelligent’ macros to interact with the user for example, to prompt for information at certain stages, using dialogue boxes.

There is also a group of macro commands for customising the appearance of the program itself. You can set up your own menu bar and menu options, and create your own commands and dialogue boxes. You can use these facilities to effectively create your own custom applications within Excel.

The automatic macro creation facility can be used to build macros if you want to avoid programming – this works by simply recording actions you perform. The ‘Record’ command starts the macro recording, after which you can perform the task you want to record. When you have finished, you give the ‘Stop Recorder’ command. When the macro has been recorded, it can be edited and added to just like any other macro. In fact, you can see your macro being created line by line as you perform the actions it records. You can do this if you place the macro sheet window next to your worksheet window.

Macros can also be used for creating new spreadsheet functions; these are called function macros as opposed to the command macros just described. The 131 functions already available cover most of the standard purposes I can envisage, but function macros can be created for more complex, customised requirements. A function macro called ‘PAYE’, for example, could be set up to calculate the tax due for a given set of variables such as gross pay, tax code, month, and so on. Function macros can be used in formulae in the same way as standard functions.

Database

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It is possible to create forms for the entry of information into a database section of an Excel worksheet. There is provision for creating search criteria for finding records.

Excel has on-sheet integrated database facilities with 11 database functions and a new feature, an automatic database form interface. Any rectangular area of the spreadsheet can be designated as the database area, after which its rows become database records and its columns database fields. All the database functions, like ‘EXTRACT’, ‘DSUM’ and ‘DMAX’, are then available for acting on the information, but these don’t interfere with other spreadsheet functions which can be used as normal.

The ‘Database Form’ command is used to bring up the automatically created form window, which you can use to enter, edit, delete and find records. The form resembles the standard form layout screen that many database programs provide, and makes using the database very simple.

The macro facilities can be used in conjunction with the database facilities to perform customised database operations and create customised database applications.

How Microsoft Excel compares to the Macintosh version

On running the Windows version of Excel for the first time, I was amazed at its similarity to the Macintosh version. The look of the spreadsheet with its cell grid, the cross pointer, the menu options and the way in which the mouse operated are all the same. The ways in which you create macros, databases and charts are the same, too. On closer inspection there are a few differences, all of them turning out to be improvements. The Windows version I used did not seem to be as fast, however, but the final release version should be faster as all the debugging code will have been removed.

The Windows version has all the features of the Mac version with many more besides. The first new feature difference I noticed was a status line at the bottom of the screen that gives brief explanations of each command as you move through the menu options – very helpful for the first-time user. Another feature is that you can choose between short and full menu options: short gives you the most commonly-used commands and may be more suitable for beginners; full gives you the complete range of commands.

On the Mac version you can adjust only column widths on a spreadsheet, but on the Windows version you can adjust the row height of individual rows as well. You can also use more than one font on a worksheet. Both these features give you a lot more flexibility in designing models and spreadsheet reports.

On the Windows version, there is a new ‘Arrange Windows’ command that automatically resizes and fits all your windows into neat boxes on the screen to let you see them all side by side. I found this feature very useful when my screen became cluttered with several spreadsheet windows.

The ‘Resume Excel’ feature from the Macintosh version has been enhanced in the form of the Workspace feature on the Windows version. This lets you save all open worksheets and window arrangements you are working on for any particular project as a workspace file, to which you can give a name. You can then reload that workspace file (or any other) if you wish to continue working on that project, and all your worksheets and windows will be opened up exactly as they were when you saved them.

The auditing and documentation features of the Windows version, described in the main text, are an important new addition that make the Windows version useful and practical, and there are also many new spreadsheet functions (see the ‘Function comparison’ box).

There are other differences too, but for day-to-day operations the programs are basically the same; and a Macintosh Excel user should have no problem at all getting to grips with complex spreadsheets on Excel for Windows. However, the Windows version offers more features and functionality which power users will find very useful indeed.

Data transfer

Data transfer facilities are very important, as you may often need to import data from other programs to Excel in order to perform analysis and create reports from it. Excel can read and write files in any of the following formats: text, CSV (comma separated values), SYLK, WKS and WK1 (Lotus 1-2-3), DIF, DBF2 and DBF3 (dBase II and III). This is a comprehensive range and facilitates the exchange of data with a wide variety of programs.

The Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) protocol resident in Windows can also be used by Excel to exchange data with other programs running under Windows.

Documentation

The Excel manuals are well up to Microsoft’s usual standard, and I didn’t have to refer to them too often since the program’s menu options are fairly self-explanatory.

Conclusion

Excel is an impressive program, and there is no reason why it should not ultimately overtake Lotus 1-2-3. It has superior power and ease of use, more facilities, and it is easy for 1-2-3 users to upgrade to. I have been a regular user of Excel on the Macintosh for some time, and I am confident that Excel for Windows will serve me equally well.

Function comparison      
Function Type Lotus          1-2-3 Excel (Windows) Excel (Macintosh)
Maths/Trig 17 26 18
Logical/Special 18 34 23
Text/String 18 21 8
Date & Time 11 12 10
Financial 11 13 8
Statistical 7 14 11
Database 7 11 7
89 131 85

Anthony Meier is a chartered accountant and computer consultant.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, December 1987

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512K Mac – Packing the Missing Punch

Apple introduces the Fat Mac

By John J. Anderson

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The nameplate on the back of this machine is the only visible indication that this is the Fat Mac, not the standard Mac.

It has been six months now since my initial review of the Macintosh computer appeared in the pages of the July 1984 issue of Creative Computing. I received more mail concerning that review than any piece I have ever written. I got letters telling me I was wrong: that the Macintosh was a gimmick, a flash in the pan, and I was foolish to call it a “breakthrough.” I got letters telling me I was wrong: that the Macintosh was the greatest thing to happen to computing, and I was foolish to poke holes in such a miraculous development. The fact that readers of both ilks were mad at me was gratifying, at least in one sense: it showed that my point of view was at once suitably awed and suitably critical to offend the extremists at both ends of the spectrum. That pleased me nearly as much as the handful of complimentary notes I received.

My conclusions in that article were neither profound nor heretical. Quite simply, I asserted that the introduction of the Mac did in fact represent a milestone in the history of personal computing, but that the machine had some rather serious problems that could not be overlooked simply because its user interface was so strikingly elegant. My bottom line was that the Apple Macintosh represented a hefty and heady promise of what a computer might one day come to be. The question was, could it make good on that promise?

So that question remains today, though we are closer to an answer. But let me make one thing perfectly clear at the outset: I am a user. There is a Mac on my desk at work and a Mac on my desk at home. So, browbeat me all you like, but don’t assume that to show loyalty to a piece of hardware you must not criticize it. Because that’s wrong. Remember, we’re “the rest of us,” right?

It was easy then and it is still easy now to dismiss the Mac out of hand. Thanks to slick campaigns and multi-megabucks, the ballyhoo is still with us – test drive a Mac, or look through a special edition of Newsweek with nothing but Apple ads in it. In a way, Apple’s California trendiness, laid-back pitch, and open-collar media image may ultimately work against Macintosh sales. When it comes down to business, buyers don’t want madras. They want white button-down. In a TV ad for Compaq, John Cleese’s impression of a typical Mac buyer hits the dynamic right on the nerve.

Let’s take it a step further and dare to suggest that two of the Mac’s very hottest features also mitigate against its popularity in the business world: 1) it is too small, cute, and sexy; and 2) it is much too easy to use. I don’t have the space here to elaborate on this theory, but those of you who know I’m right will know I’m right. It has to do with the color of your cerebral cortex. Once it turns even the slightest shade of blue, all bets are off.

But the cosmetic issue is far from most significant. The major factor hurting Mac sales in the business market today is the fact that it is “not powerful enough.” Fact is the Mac is top-heavy with overhead devoted to its slick user interface, leaving precious little memory for the actual jobs at hand. I stick by my original assertion that the Mac was never a 128K machine on the early drawing board. I would guess that 256K was the target, but the need to lower costs eventually wiped out the option. What was left was an incredibly neat little machine terribly restrained by memory limitations. This was the most serious flaw I could find in my initial report.

And though some good 128K software has made an appearance for the machine, by and large the Macintosh software scene was rather disappointing in 1984, both in quantity and quality. The cardinal sin in any Mac software trade off is to sacrifice needed features for ease of use, and unfortunately, many Macintosh packages are guilty of that transgression to quite some degree. Many of the programs that are available today in very powerful MS-DOS incarnations have been bowdlerized in some way, shape, or form in order to bring them to fruition on the 128K Macintosh. I can mention two prime examples: DB-Master and ThinkTank. Both now run on the Macintosh, albeit in a highly abridged form. In order to release a Macintosh version, both manufacturers traded off features – an undesirable transaction, to say the least.

Now the 512K Mac has hit dealer’s shelves and has been dubbed, much to the chagrin of McDonald’s, the Fat Mac. The Fat Mac packs its punch into the same mother board as the 128K Mac, with the replacement of 16 memory chips on its left-hand side. This fourfold gain in RAM can also be purchased as a retrofit to existing 128K Macs. The option adds $1000 to the list price of a 128K machine – whether purchased initially or fitted as an upgrade.

The RAM chips themselves are soldered directly to the multilayer motherboard of the Mac, and only as an act of vandalism can be removed with an IC puller. You cannot, therefore, do the upgrade yourself, but must bring the machine to an authorized dealer. In a 15-minute procedure, motherboards are switched. The old board is then reconditioned and itself sold as an upgrade.

Fat Mac units themselves are in short supply, but we managed to lasso a machine. The only hint that it is any different from a standard Mac is its nameplate, and since that nameplate appears on the back of the machine, it is a quiet self-announcement. But when you start using it, the difference is readily apparent.

I’m going to assume here that our readers who use the Mac regularly have purchased a second disk drive, if not a hard disk unit. For them, the bother of disk-swapping is already in the past. So I won’t dwell on the improvement 512K makes on a single disk machine. Certainly if I were to be limited to a single disk machine, I would do my best to make that machine a Fat Mac. Because bigger chunks of data can be stored at a time, disk-swapping is cut to a minimum. Even on a dual-drive system, file transfer time is cut dramatically.

But that is a minor advantage of the 512K Macintosh compared to its improvement in computing power. From a maximum of 10 single-spaced pages per document in Mac Write, the same program can yield an 80-page document on the Fat Mac. (A new version of MacWrite uses virtual memory techniques to allow 50-page documents on a 128K Mac and 250-page documents on a 512K Mac.) In MacPaint, the user interface is now silky smooth while scrolling the page, rather than chopped by sporadic disk loads. In Basic, desktop tools can be called up during program execution without disturbing screen memory or the stack itself. In MacTerm, the text buffer is huge. In Multiplan, spreadsheet size can be increased dramatically. In other existing software packages, the usable workspace can be quadrupled.

Even more significant, however, is what the Fat Mac can do for software currently under development. Features that would have to be lopped off to make a program run in the 128K can be salvaged – even improved upon – in a 512K environment. It would not be surprising to see two versions of a single product, like Lotus’ integrated package or Microsoft Word – for which 512K would be required to take full advantage of all features, but a limited version would run on a minimally configured machine. By developing products for the Fat Mac, software houses can subvert the reputation that Mac software sacrifices power for ease of use. We Mac users know that software can do more and be easier to use at the same time.

So: is a Fat Mac or an upgrade for you? The answer to that question is without a doubt a resounding yes. The remaining and real question is when will a Fat Mac or upgrade be for you. The upgrade chips themselves, 256K dynamic RAM chips, are still relatively rare and still relatively expensive. I would not be startled if chipset costs were cut in half – to $500 list, or even less – by this time next year. And so you must measure lost convenience across a function of time.

When the next generation Mac appears, it will most probably sport a megabyte of RAM as standard equipment, and 512K will be considered paltry. It’s all relative, folks.

First published in Creative Computing magazine, February 1985

Gem Desktop – WIMPS for All

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Digital Research’s version of Gem runs on the IBM PC and compatibles. Versions for other systems will be supplied by hardware manufacturers.

Digital Research’s Gem brings a uniform Mac-style graphics interface to a wide range of personal computers, including the IBM PC.

By Mike Lewis

The arrival of Gem marks the most realistic attempt yet to bring the marvels of overlapping windows, pull-down menus and multiple founts to a wide range of personal computers. It is a strategically important product, for both programmers and end-users. If it succeeds it will do for graphical interfaces what CP/M did for operating systems.

The comparison is an apt one because, above all, Gem is to do with portability. Just as CP/M allowed software houses to write a program for one computer in the expectations that it would run on many others, so Gem gives them the world of Wimps – windows, icons, mice and pointers – without having to worry about the details of widely differing graphics hardware.

Gem is not itself an operating system, but rather a layer of software that lives between the OS and an application program. The hardware-dependent parts are provided by Gem’s licensees – that is computer manufacturers and OEMs – while writers of application software gain access by means of a programmer’s toolkit.

Software yet to come

What Gem will do for the end-user depends on the extent to which developers of databases, spreadsheets, accounting packages, etc. make use of the goodies that it offers. So far, Gem-based packages have come in a trickle rather than a flood, but it’s early days yet.

In fact, the only Gem offerings to date have originated, not surprisingly, from Digital Research. These include Gem Draw, Gem Paint, Gem Graph and Gem Wordchart, all of which should be available by the time you read this. At the moment, the only established product is Gem Desktop, which is in many ways the hub of the system.

To run Gem, you will need 256K of RAM and a graphics display. A hard disc is advisable, but not vital. The version we tried was for the IBM PC, but it ran quite happily on the closely compatible Compaq Deskpro and Olivetti M-24. Versions for other systems will be supplied by the hardware manufacturers – they already exist for the Atari ST series and the entire Apricot range – but the IBM version is sold by Digital Research itself.

Of course, you will also need a mouse. In fact, Gem can be made to work with various pointing devices, such as joysticks and touch-screens, provided the manufacturer supplies the necessary drivers. We used the two-button Microsoft mouse, only the left-hand button being operative in Gem. In the IBM version you can get by with the cursor keys instead of a mouse, but it is a slow and clumsy alternative.

Installing Gem is simple, the whole operation being carried out by a batch file called GemPrep. If you are using floppies, you end up with two discs: a start-up disc and the disc containing the Desktop program. To start Gem itself, you place the start-up disc in Drive A and type GemRun. You are then prompted to swap discs, after which Desktop takes over the screen. Drive B remains free for other programs and data. You can also start Gem from a hard disc.

The aim of Desktop, in a nutshell, is to replace the DOS command line. It does not replace DOS itself or even Command.Com, but it does provide an easy way of carrying out basic housekeeping tasks without having to remember unfamiliar commands. Experienced users might prefer the old fashioned A> prompt, but a newcomer should find Desktop less intimidating and easier to learn.

The initial Desktop screen shows an icon for each floppy or hard disc and a trash can. There is also a menu bar with four choices: Desk, File, View and Options. To do anything useful, you have to select a disc by moving the mouse pointer to the icon and clicking the button. This switches the icon to a dark picture on a light background, Gem’s standard way of highlighting a selected object.

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Desktop provides a separate scrollable window for each sub-directory. Each icon in the window represents either a file or another sub-directory. The user is able to move windows to anywhere on the screen, change their size and make them overlap.

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The Get Info option in the file menu brings up an information box for the currently selected object, which may be a disc, folder, application or document. In this case, it is the floppy disc in drive A which is selected, as indicated by the reversed disc icon.

To see what’s on the disc you open the drive, either by double-clicking the icon or by selecting Open from the File menu. Gem responds by displaying the disc’s root directory in a window, with an icon for each file. These so-called directory icons come in three varieties: folders, which are DOS sub-directories; applications – Bat, Com and Exe files; and documents, which are meant to cover text and data files, but are in fact anything that is not a folder or an application.

Branching

Since a folder is a sub-directory, it can itself be opened to display a further window of icons. Folders may contain other folders, reflecting DOS’s tree-like structure. There is a New Folder option in the File menu which serves the same purpose as the DOS MkDir command, and you can copy files between folders, root directories and other discs.

Copying a file is simply a matter of selecting the icon, then dragging it with the mouse button held down to where you want it to go. Gem warns you if the file already exists at the destination, and also gives you a chance to rename the copy. You can copy entire discs in this way, just by dragging one disc icon on to another. If you drag an icon to the trash can, it is deleted after a suitable warning message.

The most important operation that you normally carry out at the DOS command line is to invoke an application program. In Gem, this is done simply by opening the application’s icon. Before handing over to the program, Desktop invites you to enter a parameter, the name given to a command line tail, for passing to the program. Although the application takes complete control of the screen, when it finishes the Desktop reappears exactly as you left it.

The other type of icon which you can open is a document. The aim here is merely to see what is in it, via the DOS Type command. Bear in mind that a Gem document is not necessarily text, so trying to open a binary file will result in a screenful of rubbish.

Opening a document in this way reveals one of the main weaknesses of Desktop, something which is also evident when you wish to format a floppy or carry out a disc-to-disc copy. In each case, Desktop steps aside and allows the equivalent DOS command – Type, Format or DiskCopy – to take over, exposing the user to precisely the sort of cryptic dialogue that Desktop is designed to avoid.

Having opened a document, it is a trifle disconcerting to see your attractive Desktop display disappear, albeit temporarily, to be replaced by a monochrome text screen, with the contents of the file flashing past and only the Control-S key to stop the scrolling. Would it have been so difficult for Digital Research to have displayed the file in a Gemstyle window and to have given the user a little more control over the scrolling? As it is, relinquishing control to DOS in this way gives Desktop a decidedly unpolished appearance.

Fortunately, these are the only occasions on which Desktop’s dealings with the user are open to criticism. In general, you are never left wondering what is going on and most of the system’s messages are polite, clear and to the point. When you start an operation that might be either time-consuming or destructive, such as copying or deleting a file, Desktop issues an unambiguous warning and gives you a chance to back out. More confident users can switch off this feature.

A particularly interesting aspect of Desktop is the way in which documents with the same file type can be linked to a specific application. Once this is done, opening a document of the relevant type will have the same effect as invoking the application, with the document’s name as a parameter.

For example, you could assign all documents of type Txt to WordStar. Then when you double click on a file named Report.Txt, Desktop will load WordStar which will in turn open Report.Txt ready for editing. To help you remember which documents work with which programs, you can superimpose special icons on the normal application and document icons. Thus there is a typewriter icon which would be suitable for a WP program, and one resembling a sheet of paper for word-processed text.

Resume later

Normally, this link-up between applications and documents survives only for the current Gem session. The same is true of the various toggles and switches which you can set to disable the warning message before file deletions, for instance. However, if you use the Save Desktop function in the Options menu, all these settings are written to disc. The next time you invoke Desktop, the system will be just as you left it.

In any discussion of Gem, there is a strong temptation to make comparisons with the systems that has most furthered the Wimp cause: the Macintosh. Certainly, Gem has a great deal in common with the Mac, at least from the user’s viewpoint. This is no bad thing, because once you have learned how to operate one of these, you will know the other too.

Windows have a near identical anatomy in both systems. By manipulating the various controls around the edge of the window, you can scroll it any direction, move it, alter its size or close it altogether. The only difference is that Gem’s windows also have a Full box: you click this once to make the window fill the screen and click it again to return the window to its previous size. This would be a useful addition to the Mac.

Another small difference is in the use of pull-down menus. On the Mac, you pull down a menu by pointing to it and holding down the mouse button. You may then drag the mouse to the option you want and release the button. In Gem, the menu drops down as soon as you point to it, and the option is selected by a single click.

Desk accessories are also common to both systems. These are mini-applications which can be invoked from their own menu, either from the desk top or within other programs. Gem has just two of them, a clock and a calculator, while the Mac sports seven, including the indispensable scrapbook. Gem also lacks the equivalent of the Macintosh clipboard, a handy means of cutting and pasting between programs.

GemDesktop04

Desk accessories may be invoked from Desktop or within a Gem application. The clock and the calculator are supplied with the package. Programmers who have the Gem Toolkit may add their own accessory programs.  

But it is from the programmer’s point of view that the real differences between Gem and the Macintosh emerge. When you program the Mac, you are locked into a fairly fixed configuration. Access to the graphical interface involves working closely with the hardware and with the Mac’s ROM-based service routines, and this can be quite an undertaking. You can do a lot of Mac tricks in certain high-level languages like Microsoft Basic and Mac Pascal, but these are interpreted rather than compiled and so do not appeal to software vendors.

The Macintosh is controlled by a piece of software called the finder. This, together with the ROM routines, serves as operating system, Wimp manager, and desk top. It is highly machine specific, and adding non-Apple hardware like third-party hard discs generally involves obtaining a modified version of finder.

By contrast, Gem works in co-operation with existing operating systems, its role being confined to servicing programs that want to use the graphics interface. The programmer can communicate with DOS as before, and can continue to use all his or her favourite tools like keyboard enhancers and RAM discs. And you can use any language that permits calls to compiled library routines – although the calling sequence is particularly geared to C.

Highly portable applications

Because all interaction with graphics devices is routed through a set of drivers, Gem programs can be highly portable. This does not mean that you can port Gem itself from an IBM to an Apricot and expect it to work. But once you have Gem on both systems, your application code can be successfully transferred, which is more than can be said for packages that try to do their own clever displays by directly accessing the computer’s screen-mapped memory.

This approach also means that applications written for non-Gem environments can be used in a Gem system without change. Familiar programs like WordStar and dBase will run quite happily whether they were invoked from Desktop or the DOS command line, and they will not be put off by any Gem routines that happen to be resident in RAM. What is more, the user is not tied to Gem and can return to normal DOS operation whenever he or she feels like it.

But although these are important advantages, Gem will not succeed if it merely provides a standard, intuitive mechanism for invoking non-standard, non-intuitive applications. The future of Gem depends critically, on how readily the likes of Micropro and Ashton-Tate incorporate the Gem brand of Wimps into their mass market products.

So far the prospects are good, with around a dozen major houses promising Gem adaptations of their packages. The products include Thorn EMI’s Perfect range, the Pegasus accounting system, Lifetree’s Volkswriter, Plan from Chang Labs, SPI’s Open Access, Compsoft’s Delta, and the Prospect Graphics Library.

It is true that all these represent just announcements rather than actual discs and manuals on dealers’ shelves. But with this sort of muscle behind it, Gem certainly looks like being off to a good start.

Conclusions

  • With its Mac-like user interface, its availability on a range of business micros, and its ability to work with existing applications software, Gem certainly looks like being a winner.
  • At first sight the Gem environment is nice and friendly to programmers, especially those who do not want to work too closely with the graphics hardware.
  • In spite of a few rough edges, Desktop is a highly acceptable alternative to the DOS command line. It can be mastered very quickly and so should appeal strongly to computer novices.

Specification

  • Description: Gem is an operating system extension that lets programmers use overlapping windows, icons, mouse support, pull-down menus and multiple fonts; Desktop uses Gem to perform the common DOS utility functions.
  • Hardware required: IBM PC family or compatibles, Atari ST or Apricot, other versions available soon; bit-mapped graphics display, 256K RAM, mouse or other pointing device.
  • Publisher: Digital Research, Oxford House, Oxford Street, Newbury, Berkshire.
  • Price: Desktop costs £49.95 plus VAT
  • Available: Now

First published in Practical Computing magazine, August 1985

Excel 3

Steve Cassidy is gripped by feelings of wonder and discovery as he dips into the new features of the latest version of Microsoft’s spreadsheet. But the Mac edition greys out some aspects enjoyed by Windows-OS/2 versions. Strange…

The latest version of Excel, Microsoft’s offering in the spreadsheet market has had a laser and dry ice launch at the Hippodrome – a venue famous for attracting accountants and number nerds (like me) in their droves in its usual usage – and the major version number suggests a fresh approach. Does the product warrant this much razzmatazz? At first sight, in the hands of a skilled demonstrator, it looks like it does. There’s much to talk about when it comes to new features, improvements to old capabilities, and new directions. How these components fit together is another matter.

Where they fit together is the first problem. I received a pre-production copy, composed of a stack of manuals five times thicker than my Cambridge Computer Z88, and four high density 3½in disks. Imagine the shock when the cute Windows install program informed me that first it would like to have 5Mb of space, and second it didn’t have that much available. It took me a while to realise that it was because I was using a 386 PC. On 386s, Windows can create a virtual memory swapfile on the hard disk. I had a large swapfile. Once I had used the Windows Swapfile program to disable the use of virtual memory, I could run Excel install.

This is not the most user friendly or intuitive means of installing the system: given the potential pitfalls of the Windows based procedure, I’m not convinced that the loss of the old, character based Microsoft general purpose Setup.exe is worth gaining the snazzy dialog box of the new program. That snazzy dialog box offers you the option of installing just the program, or including the tutorials, sample files and ‘add-ins’. The smallest configuration hovers around the 2Mb mark.

This is not a criticism – I can’t see how all the facilities of the system could be fitted into less space – but it doesn’t feature prominently in the installation documents. People using 286s or Macintoshes (or even OS/2 systems) don’t have this problem.

New features

On first run Excel assumes you want a tutorial, and provides one which succeeds in looking so little like a spreadsheet as to make you wonder whether a virus has grasped your machine. When you consider that 95 per cent of Mac spreadsheet users use Excel, and the £75 upgrade policy for PC users, this demo of the demo writer’s art seems curious. However, the lack of the spreadsheet look and feel is a (thankfully optional) hallmark of Excel 3’s most immediately striking changes.

There’s a tool bar located just beneath the formula entry bar at the top of the program window. Tools in the bar must be operated with the mouse. You press buttons on it to draw lines and boxes and arcs, directly on the spreadsheet, and all of these drawn items are classed as ‘objects’.

Of greater use are Button objects. These are drawn on the sheet and have a name and a section which you can press. There are also Note objects, which let you put small patches of text on top of the sheet. All the objects can have macros associated with them, so that when they are selected or clicked on, the macro executes.

That ticks off a few of the icons on the tool bar, which I’d collect as the fripperies. It leaves some more practical buttons. There’s a tiny chart: highlight a range containing suitable data, click on the chart icon and drag a rectangle on the sheet. You get an object which contains a chart. Last of the object buttons is a ‘snapshot’ of a cell, which shows a magnified version of the cell’s contents.

That leaves a few more buttons, which are not associated with the creation of objects. Working from right to left, there’s a selection tool, to allow lines and boxes to be grabbed (and, for me anyway, deleted), there’s three concerned with aligning cell contents, and a couple borrowed from the Word for Windows Ribbon for emboldening and italicising.

There’s a small Sigma button which will sum a range of figures. Microsoft says that 70 per cent of the world’s spreadsheets contain nothing more hi-tech than a bunch of totals, so the Sum button automates their construction by making a guess as to what you want summed. It’s a fairly good guesser but doesn’t consider grand totals – it sums simple values until it hits a formula or a blank. When you hit the button it performs its auto-summing through the standard = SUM() function, which you can edit.

There’s a set of buttons which are about as symbolically intuitive as a Moscow tube ticket. They control a feature which changes the way users think about spreadsheets. It’s as dramatic a change as the concept of linked, separate sheets. It’s outlining. You can declare row or a column to be a heading, and the rows or columns beside it as body text. You can expand or contract the levels of outline to show only your ‘headline’ rows, or everything, or any points between. You can have row-oriented and column-oriented outlines.

This addresses one of the fundamental procedural difficulties of spreadsheets: as information rises through an organisation, the amount of detail drops. People collate figures. With outlining, this condensation can be done on a single worksheet.

Excel3-Image001

The two sheets shown here are the same but the lower one has been compressed by using the outlining feature to remove the working, leaving just the bottom line

Bearing in mind that I’m not entirely delighted by the idea of lines and boxes and imported graphics on my worksheet, it’s nice to find that it’s possible to firstly associate the frippery-class objects with nearby cells, assign those cells to a nice low level of the outliner, and make them go away.

This kind of approach might seem somewhat silly in the light of being able to take file copies – just have two versions – but in today’s environment of mail systems, file servers and group working, an original file in a single location becomes quite an important object.

Working with files

It’s nice to see other ideas from Word for Windows leak into Excel. The last part of the tool bar is a style box, lifted without modification from the WfW Ruler. You can assign a set of attributes to a cell (font, bold/italic, alignment and so on) and have a descriptive name attached to that combination of attributes. The style box in the bar shows a list of the styles you’ve set up.

In combination with another new feature, styles can be used to make the business of preparing standard forms for others much easier. The new feature is templating: a worksheet can be saved as a template. Others can load your template, but unless they have read the little note in the manual about holding down the shift key when clicking on ‘OK’ to save the template, they can’t change your format.

The last part of the ‘departmental information’ jigsaw is in place now, too. There’s a consolidator. It allows you to bring in data from other sheets – even Lotus ones – and subject it to any of the standard mathematical functions. It would be easy to produce a worksheet showing an average for all the sales figures of all the salesmen in a region, based upon templates they have filled in. Or a total, or the standard deviation.

The possibility of consolidation functions combined with document templates is exciting. It may encourage the use of consolidation when sheet linkages should be used instead, but since it’s possible to ‘promote’ a consolidation to a set of external references, this is not a problem.

Bringing things together

If data collation from contributing spreadsheets has been a pain, the presentation of data held in other programs has been an even bigger problem. Excel, unmodified in its version 2 form for the best part of two years, has been bypassed by both Lotus and Borland’s excellent Quattro spreadsheet in terms of links to popular PC database products.

This has had the effect of making some people retain their data within Excel, and forego any of the advantages of proper relational design and indexed data retrieval in favour of the nicer presentation and ‘number nerd friendly’ algorithmic features of the spreadsheet. In version 3 they have been given an external application bundled with the program called Q+E. It’s a database retrieval system with which Excel communicates through Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE). DDE is a Windows feature, and Excel 3 uses a much expanded internal definition of DDE which improves flexibility and response times when large amounts of data are manipulated between programs.

Q+E’s interface is not a new idea: Superbase 4 for Windows, from Precision Software, is capable of either serving or driving a DDE ‘conversation’ with the current version of Excel. Q+E’s advantage is that it supports the three main categories of external database the average PC Excel user is likely to find: dBase III, other Excel files, and SQL databases, which can reside either on the PC which is running Excel 3 or, more interestingly, on a host mini, file server (running, say, OS/2 EE or one of the 57 varieties of Unix) or corporate mainframe.

A cursory glance at this bundled system (I admit to not having an SQL service available on my test facility, and space is short) shows that it forms a front end to the database. You can choose to have the remote database server do all the sorting, relational linking and subset creation, or you can download large chunks of information and bring your PC to its knees working on it within Excel (my preference is to make the database engine do what it does best, and have the PC stick to what PCs are good at). It wasn’t clear to me whether Q+E could be used as a two-way pipeline between Excel and a host database – in other words, whether those salesmen and their template spreadsheets could be made to contribute to a full scale corporate database. If this were possible, it could have interesting ramifications.

Interesting, but with an unfortunate semantic history. The macro command used to send data to Q+E, is =POKE(). This was quite enough to raise hackles long dormant, grown from exposure to too much GW-Basic. I’m sure it’s just a bad dream…

Q+E is a badly needed addition to the Excel capability tick sheet. The only problem with it is that you must have a machine classed as minimal for Windows 3 in order to be able to load both Excel and Q+E at the same time. A 640k 286 system will just load Excel and be pretty slow: I’m running most of my tests on a 2.6Mb Compaq Portable III, and the larger tests on a 5Mb 386S.

Things that have been fixed

Excel3-Image003

Excel3-Image004

As you can see from the screenshots, some pretty glaring bugs have been sorted out in the new version. In v2.1, a stacked column or area chart containing a negative number comes out as if the number were positive. Excel 3 fixes this. There are fixes to the links between sheets, too. Previously, a link to a cell in another sheet would take the form ‘ThatSheet’!$A$1: the name of the sheet, an exclamation mark, and the absolute cell reference. In the new version, relative remote addresses have been introduced. A cell reference can appear just as before but without the $ signs. So, if you copy the reference around on the new sheet, it will change the remote reference for you. Likewise, if you go to the remote sheet and move the target cell of a relative reference around, the ‘top’ cell in the linkage chain will update its reference. This is most interesting in the case of consolidated sheets and templated input or for existing collections of sheets with linkages in them. In the case of a template, even if someone decides to make a change (like inserting a line or shuffling some cells around) so long as the linkage has been made to a main sheet, Excel will tenaciously track that shifted linkage. Either that, or present you with an angry #REF! in the cell containing the unresolvable formula. (#REF! makes me laugh: it’s the noise I like to think a rather annoyed terrier might make.)

Making it make sense

Now that we’re past the frippery items, and we have some data which with luck we’ve obtained without the penance of hours and hours of stultifying manual input, we come on to the business of wringing some conclusions from it. The outliner lets the summarisers have their day, but there are many users who model what might happen, as well as report what has happened. Excel 3 supplies several neat gadgets to assist the modeller or analyst.

The first, largest and neatest of all is the macro language. All the facilities mentioned so far, and detailed later on, have matching macro commands. When you want to do some ‘what if work, the older versions of Excel provided a set of macro sheets to drive a spreadsheet through a number of calculations, feeding different variables into cells to show what might happen to a scenario according to those inputs.

The old, bundled macro sheets were tremendously useful to those who wanted goal seeking or the other facilities badly – they can take the supplied macros and rebuild them to suit their particular scenario. But this leaves a lot of people for whom the business of mastering tons of tightly coded macro sheets is too much bother, or too difficult. They could try casting themselves upon the mercy of iterative calculation – the setting up of a series of cells which refer to one another, and which are calculated until a kind of mathematical soap-film surface of least tension of figures is achieved. But I suspect many may share my unease at this curious balancing act, not because the program doesn’t do the job properly, but because the concept is rather curious.

And rather slow. A spreadsheet which is iterating to solve a particular problem (if this is too confusing, pass by to the bit about charting in the next section) has to revisit and recalculate all its cells, for each pass of the iteration. Excel 3 offers two tools to make iterative use available to a wider church. One is the Goal Seeker, and the other is the Solver.

The Goal Seeker is the simplest. It lives at the bottom of the Formula menu and it allows you to set a target value for a cell, and specify which cell you would like to have altered to make your target hit the desired value. This works only for single cells: you can’t make the Goal Seeker stabilise a series of numbers which contribute to an average.

But that’s OK; this is simple goal seeking for simple situations. Perhaps the simplest use for it is to set up a loan schedule using the =NPV() formula, then use the Goal Seeker to determine the maximum amount you may borrow for a given monthly payment. Hardened financial modellers will scoff at this example, since it doesn’t address the next logical question one might choose to ask about that loan, but this is the whole point of a simple function like the Goal Seeker. It provides an easy intro to the business of iterative solving, on just one target and one contributor cell.

If you’re reading this with a copy of Excel 3 in front of you and are following these examples, do be careful when calling up the Goal Seeker function: below it lives the Solver add-in. The Solver is a much more complex tool for controlling iteration and establishing finishing conditions for a modelling process. It is not part of the main program but instead lives as an add-in, loaded on demand. If you are running on a 640k 286 system, you can forget the Solver right away – it won’t fit. On this Compaq 286, it takes eight seconds to load.

It does the things the Goal Seeker can’t. You can cause a cell to attempt to reach a target value (or to stop the Solver when a cyclically variant number hits a maximum or minimum) by changing values in a whole series of contributing cells, subject to a list of constraint expressions. The constraints are supplied in the same ‘A1 < 0’ format which was used in the Criteria block of the old database functions.

Solving is clearly a cold-towel subject, worthy of its own article – there are dialog boxes deep in the options setup for solving which talk about Newton or Conjugate searching methods, which I will cheerfully admit to being over my head. Suffice it to say that if your business is beset by the kind of mathematical problems they used to have people solve on Brain of Britain against the clock, with six schoolboys filling a bath with teaspoons competing with four St Bernards doing an identical bathtub with brandy barrels, taking into account the speed of the St Bernards and the tendency of the schoolboys to throw the occasional bonio to slow the dogs down, then the Solver is for you.

That’s got us to the painfully complex level of iterative modelling, and we’re not finished yet. The Solver is a bundled add-in, loaded into Excel on demand and held within it. This is a more intimate form of addition than Q+E. You can also produce your own add-ins: one of the permitted formats for an add-in file is that of a macro sheet. Rename your favourite macro from a .XLM file to a .XLA, and you have an add-in. So, those people with a perfectly satisfactory custom macro application for controlling existing iterated or predictive models can swiftly adapt them to unmodifiable (and hopefully completely debugged) .XLA add-ins and carry on using them.

Charting

Excel3-Image002

The 3D graphing looks good and is easy to set up with a wire-frame representation of the graph in the dialog box

This section would have wound up under the fripperies section since it deals with another completely cosmetic part of the program: the production of graphs. It is with great personal sadness that I have to report that Excel 3 now includes 3D charts which are equal to, if not better than, those supplied in Wingz.

You’ll gather I think this is a waste of time, and it is: it merely serves to obscure the true nature of the data being presented. It’s true that people need to see the occasional cheerful bit of visual presentation to keep their attention from waning but I’m afraid I just can’t follow this drive towards warped pictures being the best way of showing people the true picture. Possibly the best part of the graphing from this gloomy point of view is that now the graph can actually be placed on the worksheet.

The things that kept the chart features description out of the fripperies are the tricks with feedback between the chart and the data which spawned it. Double click on a column chart, control-click on a column, and you can drag the top up or down to make it fit where you want. The number which produced that column on the original sheet will be changed to match that column’s new position. If the number was a formula, a slightly bigger and better Goal Seeker will pop up and allow you to specify which original value point where a suspicious user can input commands and watch as Excel plays back the series of menu options required to do the same function, at a speed that can be varied from Paul Daniels’ style prestidigitation to Emo Phillips’ agonising action replay mime…

Documentation

The manuals as supplied to me were page proofs of an early version of the shrink-wrapped documents. They carried several sections and paragraphs with the editor’s pen marks in place, which showed that any differences between the PC (Windows), Mac and PC (OS/2) versions had been ironed out before release. This is a great advance: the Excel user under any of these operating systems will be working from the same manuals.

Like most Microsoft documentation, these are clear but somewhat limited in their advice-giving. Features are clearly described, but only occasionally are you told when you might be better off on another tack. An example for the unwary is the =SET.VALUE() macro function. Its purpose is to set a cell in the macro sheet (not the worksheet) to a supplied value. You shouldn’t use it for cells in the worksheet, but the documentation doesn’t say so. More guidance in problem solving would help.

Prices

The Windows and OS/2 versions of Excel 3 cost £395 each, the Mac version costs £345. If you bought version 2.1 after 1 December 1990, the upgrade is free; otherwise, it costs £75.

Conclusion

There’s so much to look at in this package that I’ve only scraped the surface of the changes made. I’ve not had room to mention delightful features like automatic column sizing – double click on a column and it sizes to the widest cell – or the consistent concept of double clicking on any object – a chart, a cell with a note in it (flagged by a little red dot in the corner): nor will I try. Excel is one of those ‘feeling of wonder’ discovery products which rewards investigation and creativity.

The development team at Microsoft have managed to deliver genuine improvements to spreadsheet users without compromising the existing functionality or slowing down usage. They could easily have stopped with the fripperies and the Hippodrome launch but I’m extremely happy to say they didn’t, and boring types like me can turn off the Tool Bar, never draw a single line in a spreadsheet ever again, and still gain real benefit.

In theory, Excel is the same under Windows 3 or OS/2 and on the Mac. There are also sections in the manual dedicated to Hewlett-Packard’s NewWave (a vastly expanded environment for Windows 3).

In practice, some features of the system are not enabled when you run on the Mac under System 6. They’re present, but greyed out, so for once the Mac is lagging behind the PC. Microsoft says this is not the company’s fault and that the stable parts of System 7, which is rumoured to offer facilities analogous to DDE on the PC, will work with Excel 3.

Mac users will also have their own version of Q+E, to connect to DAL, Apple’s likely new method for linking to external databases. There are enough differences between platforms to cause some delay, but this time it’s not on Microsoft’s side. It seems a great shame that the one application responsible for getting the Macintosh into so many financial institutions (‘get me Excel and something to run it on’) should now be the biggest searchlight illuminating Apple’s apparent inability to deliver the oft-promised goods.

The OS/2 version seems minimally documented. A few of the crossed out sections in my proof copy of the manual made reference to OS/2 specific features, which have clearly moved into the common ‘feature pool’. Perhaps something of Microsoft’s attitude towards OS/2 might be inferred from this…

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, March 1991