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Ability Achieves Goal of Simplicity

Richard O'Reilly designs microcomputer applications for The Times

Publishers of so-called “integrated software” face a dilemma: Do they design a complex product aimed at super-sophisticated computer users, or do they aim for ease of use at the expense of some performance features?

The creator of Ability, a $495 integrated package, obviously had simplicity as a goal and did a credible job of achieving it. The program combines word processing, spreadsheet, database, graph-making and telecommunications. A sixth feature is called “Presentation!” and is best described as a computer slide show complete with musical accompaniment.

As individual programs, each of Ability’s components are capable and easy to use, but there are more powerful stand-alone programs available, especially for word processing, data base and graphing functions. This is a case, however, where the sum of the whole is greater than its parts because the total Ability package allows you to easily create documents containing text, graphs, spreadsheet tables and database records that you just could not produce by trying to combine files produced by separate programs.

Published by Xanaro Technologies Inc. of Toronto, Ability gets the new user off to a fast start with an attractive manual that is only 1/2-inch thick, and with program disks that are not copy protected. Making working copies of the program, or installing it on a hard-disk computer--where it runs best--can be done quickly. The software runs on an IBM PC, PC XT or PC AT or compatible models and requires at least 384 kilobytes of random access memory. More memory allows you to create larger files.

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Commands Are Consistent

It also runs best on a computer equipped with a graphics display card, which is required to create graphs and run the Presentation! portion of the program.

In each of the modules, the bottom two lines of the screen always display the commands currently available. Another consistency is that the 10 function keys invoke the same commands throughout the program rather than, for instance, having the one set of commands for word processing and a separate set of commands used in the spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet can have a maximum size of about 10,000 entries if you have 512K of RAM in your computer, and if don’t have any other files open at the same time. A word processing document can be about 50 to 60 pages long with the same size memory, also assuming it is the only file open. Data base files are dependent on disk storage, with a maximum of 65,000 records in a single data base if you have the space.

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You can only view one file at a time, but you can “flip” to a second in an instant. It is easy to move graphs and portions of data bases and spread sheets into text documents.

Linking entries in one spread sheet to those in another is possible. It can be either a one-way link, in which only one of the two spreadsheets is automatically updated when an entry changes, or it can be a two-way link, with entries in both spreadsheets changed. It is also possible to combine two spreadsheets into a single one. Spread sheets also can be transferred by telecommunications, which is something that is difficult with files created by the best-selling Lotus 1-2-3 spread sheet program.

Can Be Printed Sideways

Another nice feature is that spreadsheets, database reports or text documents created on Ability can be printed sideways.

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Database files are easy to create with this program. You design the data entry form by putting the cursor wherever you want it on the screen and typing in a label--such as “name” or “address"--for the information you’ll be entering on that line. Then you indicate how wide a blank space should be left to fill in. Also, mathematical calculations can be performed on data entries. Selecting, sorting and printing summary reports is easily done as well.

The word processing program, called “Write,” is simple to use and adequate for most needs, but it has some limitations. A moderately fast typist can outrun the screen, and there is no way to use the foreign language characters or other special characters available on IBM and compatible computers.

On the plus side, it is easy to include a portion of a spreadsheet or a graph or a database record or report anywhere in a text document. You can also create a math calculation field anywhere in a document in which you can perform any calculation you could do in a spreadsheet. It’s a good substitute for having a pocket calculator nearby.

The telecommunications portion of Ability is its most cumbersome module. Before you can place a call to another computer you have to fill out two full-screen forms, one to describe the communications parameters and the other to describe terminal settings and telephone number. If you want to store a log-on routine to be sent automatically, that requires yet another file.

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Standard Code

The bright side of telecommunications is that Ability stores its files in simple ASCII code, an industry standard that makes it easy to transfer text and data to other computers and other programs.

The graphing function works smoothly, but it’s not very fancy--just basic bar, line and pie chart varieties.

The really fun element in Ability is Presentation! You prepare by taking “snapshots” of anything displayed on your screen with the touch of a key and storing them in a special file.

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Then you go into the Presentation! module and assign the sequence in which those snapshots should be displayed and the timing, the manner in which the computer should segue from one to the next and what musical tune, if any, should be played with each.

One slide can be replaced by another with a left-to-right wipe, or by shrinking the first image down to a small square before the new appears. Its most complex transition breaks the image into four diagonal stripes and gradually wipes them toward the upper right corner to reveal the next image.

The musical accompaniment is equally imaginative, ranging from a few bars of the William Tell Overture, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to Jingle Bells and Happy Birthday.

It’s a lot of fun to create a presentation, and the end result can be an effective form of communication.

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Xanaro Technologies Inc. may be reached at C321 Bloor St. East, Suite 815, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4W 1G9, telephone (416)927-8369.


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