REVIEWS

Harmonic Convergence

Lighthouse Design's Concurrence fills two NeXT niches with style and depth

by Ben Calica

The idea of applying an outline metaphor to word processing was a breakthrough when Dave Winer and Living Videotext first introduced it on the Apple II nine years ago. The ability to move text blocks around in an outline heirarchy proved to be a powerful tool not just for writers but also for groups of people organizing their thoughts and plans.

Later, other software designers improved on this by associating the outline process with the graphics-communications process of preparing and presenting visual slides of information. New output devices and graphics service bureaus sprang up to meet the demand for computer-generated slides, and desktop-presentation software is now a mature product category on other computer platforms, especially the Macintosh.

Now, with Concurrence from Lighthouse Design, which began shipping in March, the NeXT platform has an outline and presentation tool to rival those on other platforms. With the support of the NeXTstep tools and interface, Concurrence integrates and balances the two functions of the program exceptionally well. While it doesn't break any new conceptual ground over such programs as Aldus Persuasion or Microsoft Power Point, it implements the genre with grace and a sprinkling of innovative features. As such (and despite a list price that we consider to be too high), Concurrence is likely to become a standard application in the power user's NeXT software toolkit.

A strong outline
Outlining in Concurrence will be familiar to anyone who has used outlining programs on other computers. Text is placed at different heirarchy levels for rapid organization of your thoughts. Then, as you refine the relationships between your topics, they can be moved around the outline and promoted and demoted in relation to the main topics. For display, parent topics can be collapsed to hide the subpoints and expanded to show the full detail.

Topics can also be cloned if the user wants to have them repeated several times throughout the document, and any changes on a cloned item will be reflected on other clones. Concurrence also permits focusing and unfocusing on the outline, which allows you to navigate easily into areas of detail.

Elements in the outline are manipulated by clicking and dropping, or with the Tab and Shift-Tab keys pressed together, or with Emacs key controls. Families are collapsed and expanded using key or mouse control. The text in an item can wrap around in a full paragraph, or be cut off to only show the first line.

The program uses two different types of rulers one for the outline items, and another for the text within those items. Normally peers on the same level share overall font and style characteristics, but those preferences can be overridden by selecting a particular word or phrase and modifying the text directly. The leader-character selection, on the other hand, is universal for a peer group. The choices are Legal (1.1, 2.1, 2.2), Harvard (A, 1, a, b), and Bullet (). There is no ability to customize the leader characters, but that's rarely needed. The fact that the leader characters are universal for a level is slightly more troubling, but it's easy to work around by using the Views feature.

Concurrence uses the concept of multiple views to let users change the way their information is displayed to different audiences. Each view is connected to all others. Cosmetic things, such as the font and formatting, and even what families are expanded or collapsed, are kept local to each view. But any changes to the substance of the text, including an item's order or position, are instantly mirrored in all views. The views are used both to customize outlines for a particular audience and to make slide shows. Views are managed from Concurrence's View Browser.

The program uses the standard NeXT Spelling and Find interfaces throughout both parts of the program. But another standard NeXT implementation causes a little trouble: Concurrence obeys the pasteboard rules and allows you to copy a desired section of the outline for pasting into any application that can read standard RTF. Some applications like Mail have no problem correctly interpreting the formatting and font information, but neither WriteNow nor WordPerfect programs NeXT users are likely to use in conjunction with Concurrence can make the same claim. WriteNow will keep the outline's formatting but ignores all the font and font style information. WordPerfect keeps the font information but strips out the formatting. Lighthouse plans to include both import and export modules in the future.

NeXT slide, please
Creating a slide show from the View Browser automatically creates a sequence of slides from the current outline. The slide view obeys the same rules as the outline views they can be rearranged, expanded, and collapsed just like the outline. Any cosmetic changes stay local, and any substantial changes, such as rearranging the order or changing the text, will be reflected throughout the document.

The tools for embellishing a slide are powerful and easy to use. In addition to dragging standard NeXT document types such as EPS files right onto the slide, Concurrence borrows from the graphics palette in Diagram, Lighthouse Design's popular graphics program. All the basic shapes can be pulled from the palette and dropped onto a slide.

Those objects can have their fill pattern, size, and shadow manipulated from the object inspector. A wide variety of gradient graphic fills can be used either on a particular graphic element or the whole slide. The graphic palette can also be used to create freestanding text for a slide; this is the only text that can be created or changed locally to a slide and not be reflected through the entire document. As you would expect, Concurrence supports the full range of colors, with stunning results in the hands of a graphic designer.

Mind your masters
To enable common graphic elements and text styles to be shared among multiple slides, Concurrence utilizes a master slide that automatically updates related presentation slides.

This is standard in these types of packages and is both highly useful and occasionally annoying. Usually, you'll want to have consistency in the style of your slides, but sometimes you want to break from the norm. Concurrence solves this problem in two ways: Either you override the master items on a slide-by-slide basis, or you create multiple master slides. The additional master slides can be connected to any set of slides selected. This option provides tremendous flexibility.

Other options that can be set either at the slide or master level include transition effects, sound, and auto-cycle times. The transition effects are how one slide graphically shifts into the next, and include choices for Dissolve, Iris, Scroll, Slide, and Wipe. The Inspector previews each of these effects when you set them. The user can also set a sound to be automatically played when a slide is shown. There are no options to control when it will play other than on the slide's first appearance. Of course if the user wanted to cue a sound, the easy workaround would be to create a duplicate of the slide and have the sound attached to it then the sound would accompany an invisible change. Finally, the user can, in automatic mode, set how much time a slide will be visible.

It's show time!
When it is time to give a presentation, there are several options. Printing to paper or overhead transparency is the simplest; most good stationery stores stock overhead transparency paper suitable for xerography. With NeXT's new color printer, slightly different overhead transparency sheets are needed, but the results are quite nice. The next option is 35mm slides. Lighthouse lists several service bureaus that are savvy about Concurrence and who are either on the net, can be directly connected by modem, or will take NeXT floppies. The price for this service is anywhere from $10 to $25 a slide, depending on resolution and urgency. It can also output to a local slide recorder, such as the Rio Film Recorder offered by Houston-based Talus Corporation.

The final method of presentation is directly on the screen. The slide show can be set to take over the whole NeXT screen, which is large enough when presenting to a small group. (Of course, projection options are available for larger gatherings). Concurrence has several options for the slide show. They can be set up in kiosk-like automatic loops, with each slide staying on screen for a length of time that you predetermine. This can be interrupted only by hitting the Esc key. Or the user can control the presentation from the cursor keys or mouse, with the mouse working like a forward-only remote control, each click advancing one frame. The cursor keys, on the other hand, have the ability to go back and forth.

The final option that the Lighthouse people have added to the product is Prepare for Mailing. Knowing that it is quite likely that Concurrence presentations are going to be sent between co-workers or distributed to customers over networks, the Prepare for Mailing option gathers all the files that have been linked into the presentation and makes the document self-sufficient. Lighthouse has talked about providing a means for people who don't own Concurrence to be able to view the documents directly, but that's still in the future.

The price of quality
All of Concurrence's depth and style comes at considerable price: $995 list, or probably about $800 through a mail-order house. Aware as we are of the economics of the NeXT software market and the willingness of many workstation buyers to pay handsomely for great software, we still think the price is too steep. Fortunately, the company of recent college graduates has pledged to have very aggressive academic pricing. We'd like to see all NeXT users be able to get their hands on Concurrence.

It's that good. Either the outliner or presentation package would have been a valuable addition to the NeXT software library. Packaged together in harmony with the NeXTstep environment, Concurrence is a compelling piece of software that NeXT users won't want to live without.

Ben Calica, founding editor of NewMedia magazine, is currently a free-lance writer based in San Francisco. He was previously a NeXT advocate.


Concurrence 1.0

4 Cubes beta

Designed for both idea processing and desktop presentations, Concurrence is an excellent combination of an outliner and a slide-based presentation package. Both sides are clean, easy to use, and fully functional. It's an exceptionally well-developed product for an initial release.

$995

Lighthouse Design, 6516 Western Ave., Chevy Chase, MD 20815.

800/366-2279, 301/913-2806 fax.