REVIEWS

Barlow and Lavin

Mesa

Lavin: The NeXT spreadsheet market is like a corner malt shop. First, there was Ashton-Tate and Informix offering plain vanilla in the form of PowerStep and Wingz. When Lotus introduced butter pecan Improv nobody seemed to want vanilla anymore.

Over time, however, it became apparent that users really wanted a true marriage of traditional spreadsheet and the NeXT environment. So David Pollak and Athena Design have brought a new flavor to market in Mesa. It's still vanilla, but it's creamy French vanilla.

Mesa grows directly out of the evolution of 1-2-3 on the PC (ugly, clunky, and inelegant) to Excel on the Mac and Windows (only slightly less ugly, clunky, and inelegant). By tapping the beauty and power of the NeXT environment, Mesa is the cream of traditional spreadsheets.

You get all the functions of 1-2-3, including full compatibility with 1-2-3 macros and direct import of 1-2-3 worksheets. It has all the tools layout, graphing, font control, graphics incorporation to make your spreadsheet presentations welcome in the real world. Unlike Improv's, Mesa's familiar format means that you need little or no training to perform basic tasks.

Further, this is a product that operates in the NeXT's multitasking environment. Beyond the expected copy-and-paste capabilities, you can have true real-time links to other programs and to the outside world in the form of data feeds. For users who want to customize Mesa for their specific needs, Mesa ships with its own API (application program interface). The end result is true productivity improvements for users who need a spreadsheet every day, or just one day a month.

The only problem for Mesa is that it may not be the only fancy flavor on the market for long, now that Appsoft has announced that it plans to bring PowerStep back from the dead. With the way machines are starting to sell, and with NeXTSTEP '486 shipping soon, there should be plenty of room for both.

Barlow: Sometimes the old ways are the best. When I first saw Improv at the second unveiling of the NeXT, I was so impressed that I imagined a lot of bizdroids rushing out and buying black boxes just to get some. Then I tried it myself and found its paradigm-shattering model really hard to wrap my mind around. I couldn't tell whether it was actually that counterintuitive or if my sense of what a spreadsheet was had simply calcified permanently around the Lotus-Excel model and was no longer capable of change.

What I kept grabbing for (and not finding in my Dock) was a plain old spreadsheet something that would open my old Lotus and Excel files without weirdness or complaint, performing the usual functions in something like the usual way.

It's finally arrived in the form of Mesa. Mesa is just a spreadsheet. Nothing more, nothing less. Very old paradigm. If you know either Lotus or Excel, you shouldn't even need to open its manual (which is as crisp and obvious as the program itself).

It appears that it will even run your Lotus macros, though it's been so long since I've used mine that I couldn't remember where I'd stashed them in order to test it.

It's lean but not emaciated. It doesn't provide some of the more baroque features 3-D pie charts come to mind that are available in programs like Wingz, but I would guess that 90 percent of the features in any spreadsheet go unused by 90 percent of the users 90 percent of the time. Hey, most folks never do anything with a spreadsheet they couldn't do as well, if more loudly, using an adding machine.

Mesa's text-based flavor may remind you of an adding machine. But for that reason, it should be palatable to the bonds traders and commodities brokers who are just coming to the NeXT and whose previous experience with computing has been Lotus 1-2-3 version 2.1. Mesa is a bit of a hammer, but it's just that useful for the tasks it's likely to be put to. And it's just about as challenging to operate.

SBook

Editor's note: Because the author of this program wears another hat as a senior editor of this magazine, NeXTWORLD will not publish a formal review of SBook. The opinions below are those of Barlow and Lavin only.

Barlow: Whenever I've followed the bleeding edge to a new computing platform, I've always left behind some fixtures for which my shiny new environment offered no equivalent. I found this especially true as I departed the comfortable funk of my Mac commune for the upscale but largely unfurnished NeXT.

The cozy old sofa I have missed the most is something called QuickDex, a freeform (that is, unfielded) database in which I keep not only all my addresses and phone numbers but any other notes that have no obvious place to go. It also prints envelopes and address books, dials the phone, and, if its author spent the evening on it, could probably brew your morning coffee. Unfortunately, there was nothing like it on the NeXT.

One never knows whence comes salvation. Some months ago, NeXT-WORLD Senior Editor and noted digital eccentric Simson L. Garfinkel sent me some NeXTmail with an attached executable called SBook. I double-clicked it and realized it was or could easily become QuickDex for the NeXT. And then some . . .

SBook was still pretty larval when I first beheld it. In the intervening months, it has become, in my opinion, as well-strung a bit-string as I've ever fed through a CPU. It is incredibly fast, efficient, elegant, intelligent, and, most of all, uncomplicated. This latter attribute is especially remarkable when one considers the cranium in which it formed.

One might say a variety of things of Simson L. Garfinkel, but no one has ever called him uncomplicated. Simson's most notable feature is the riot of electrical hair which frames his gnome-like visage, a hirsute explosion that would barely fit in a bushel basket and seems to perfectly symbolize the complexities that boil beneath it.

One way in which SBook does resemble its maker is that it's really, really smart. It can automatically tell whether the name on the first line of a record is a business or a person and sorts it accordingly. It knows the difference between an address, a phone number, and an e-mail address and places an appropriate icon next to each that, when clicked upon, will print an envelope, dial the phone, open a NeXTmail Send window, or perform other appropriate actions. It can automatically export all your fax numbers and e-mail addresses into the NeXT's built-in lists for each. It makes labels (centering each address neatly on a label) and address books in variety of formats, including any the user might define.

It imports and exports all kinds of data, freeform or structured, and includes, to my glee, a QuickDex file translator that corrects NeXT vs. Mac keyboard-mapping inconsistencies and still works at a speed that is rapid to the point of being a little alarming. It imported and translated my two-thousand-record QuickDex file in a little over a minute.

Indeed, all of its operations seem to occur at unnatural velocities. When I type any character string in its Find window it will locate, in my megabyte-plus database, every single instance of that string in every part of every record in less than a second. It's not just QuickDex, it's QuickDex on a six-pack of Jolt.

Lavin: Do you have any friends with a "great American novel" accumulating in a drawer? You read the manuscript prepared to be supportive but are flabbergasted when it actually turns out to be the great American novel. I had a similar experience with SBook.

Here sat my officemate Simson complaining about the lack of a decent personal database for the NeXT. At the time, I had phone numbers in super-useful Improv and WriteNow files.

Well, one day Simson announced, "I'm going to write one for myself. I know more about this than most people, since I've used these things for more than 15 years." Yes, Simson says things like that. Anyway, I was secretly pleased, thinking a little experience with failure would bring him down a notch or two.

No such luck. The damned thing is terrific. As much as I hate to admit it, if you're tracking names, addresses, or any kind of freeform data, there is no substitute for SBook. The only thing I'd change is to use the name NeXT Marketing Vice-President Mike Slade suggested: DataFinkel.

PasteUp

Lavin: PasteUp has me thrown for a loop. It does scads of things no other program will let me do, but it gives me almost no guidance in how to do them well. It's evident that Glenn Reid is a visionary; I just wish that he would consider compromising his vision to accommodate design idiots like me.

Glenn's vision comes through loud and clear in PasteUp. The concept is freeform page layout. It's the archetypal blank page. You can do most anything with it assuming you know what you want to do.

I generally don't shy away from this type of freedom. I can handle someone saying, "Write something," or "Here's a crowd. Keep them occupied for ten minutes." But when it comes to design, I flash back to fourth grade and red construction paper and scissors. Guess what? A cupid doesn't materialize, just shreds of construction paper.

That said, PasteUp is a breakthrough program in many ways. As the first truly object-oriented page-layout program, it treats all elements graphics, text, or images in the same way. The shear tool shears text the same as if it were a photograph. (In all other page-layout paradigms you shift into a special text mode to deal with text, and so on.) A side effect of this is the ability to group items that go together graphically and apply the same attribute, like width, to all of them. All changes are achieved in real time, on the fly, using the NeXT's drag-and-drop metaphor. You tweak things visually until you get them right.

Special bonuses include sophisticated text handling, like hyphenation, for a more polished document than you can get in WriteNow or WordPerfect. Also, the program offers the only way to bring in a fax, annotate all over it, and fax it back out. There are tons of details like this, and they are all superb.

A down side is that even though you can store the style of a group of attributes and objects, all this tweaking might work against a coherent look for your organization, especially if different layout artists are working together. This may not be a big deal, since the program is admittedlty for short documents and small projects, anyway.

The upshot is that the blank-page approach might limit PasteUp's utility for amateurs like me, but it leaves the heart and soul of the desktop and professional design market wholly intact. I might like to see Glenn compromise a little bit, but if he compromised for everyone, we wouldn't have this great program.

Barlow: PasteUp appears to be a great example of the advantages of NeXT's object-oriented environment. Everything in it characters, text boxes, graphics, external files is an object and thus amenable to independent manipulation using the same basic tool kit.

It is also full of neat features, some of which never occurred to you to want but might become indispensable in a hurry. You can rotate and skew anything on the screen with one handle. You can search and replace by color, font, or format. Or drag and drop styles for graphics and other objects. Or drag any sort of other file, from TIFF to spreadsheet, into a document and have it appear, properly opened, in your document. Or what RightBrain calls "infinite undo" (Command-z your way back to the Big Bang, maybe?).

Finally, it does some basic and obvious things that PageMaker still can't do after all these years, like opening multiple documents at once and allowing multiple views of the same document.

Unfortunately, as I write this in mid-July, PasteUp is not what you'd call happening software. Once RightBrain gets the bugs out, PasteUp could turn out to be a program that will make it worth buying a NeXT all by itself. I'll withhold my thumb until the software is stable.

Did Dan Lavin and John Perry Barlow think we asked for reviews of ice cream and soft drinks? Send them e-mail at jbarlow@nextworld.com and dlavin@nextworld.com.