Lotus’ Improv Easier Than 1-2-3

LAWRENCE J. MAGID <i> is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer</i>

For more than a decade, Lotus Development Corp. has led the PC spreadsheet market with its various iterations of 1-2-3. Lotus still sells a lot of copies of 1-2-3, just as Borland does with Quatro Pro and Microsoft with Excel. All are excellent.

But Lotus, finally, has come out with a revolutionary new program that may wind up stealing the show. Lotus’ Improv for Windows will change the way people create and look at spreadsheets.

Improv will be a welcome relief to people who need to analyze spreadsheet data from a variety of different perspectives.


Instead of having to manually rearrange or add to your spreadsheet to create a new analysis, Improv allows you to quickly create new views of your existing data. A single click of the mouse is all it takes, for example, to change a sales report from sales by product to sales by region or by month.

The Improv screen, like all spreadsheet programs, is divided into columns and rows that intersect to form cells. With most spreadsheets, you enter both data and formulas in cells.

With Improv you enter only data. Formulas are placed in a special area of the screen so that they’re easier to keep track of.

And the formulas no longer have to refer to the data’s location, as is the case with other spreadsheets. Instead of an arcane formula like A3=A1-A2, you would type something like Profit=Revenue-Expenses.

Say you were using Improv to create a spreadsheet to track expenses and revenue for a retail chain with stores in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.

You would start by creating three items: Revenue, Expenses and Profit. Then you create an item called January. Instead of typing in the rest of the months, you just hit the enter key 11 times or use the mouse to highlight 11 more cells. The program is smart enough to enter in the rest of the months for you.


With a traditional spreadsheet, you’d have to choose a location for the formula that calculates profit. But since you’ve already created an item called Profit, all you have to do is point to it and type: =Revenue-Expenses.

Or you could do it all by pointing and clicking with the mouse. Improv will assign the formula to the item called Profit and apply it to each month in the spreadsheet. With other programs, you’d have to copy the formula.

Adding a third dimension to the spreadsheet is just as easy. To get a breakdown by city, you would create a new category, called “city,” and type in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Improv would automatically create a new model with places to enter the new data.

Improv’s greatest strength is its ability to let you easily analyze your data in a variety of ways. You can create multiple views of the same spreadsheet without having to type in any new formulas. You can look at the views in separate windows on your screen and save them with the file.

It’s also easy to change the appearance of your spreadsheet. You can bring up an on-screen “InfoBox” that allows you to experiment with different type faces, colors and formatting options.

You get to preview the change before you click OK, making it easy to experiment with different styles.

Improv offers the usual array of business graphics; the 20 major chart and graph types include 3D-bar, stack, line, bar, pier, scatter and area graphs. You can annotate your graphics with text, drawing or graphic files imported from other programs.

Improv’s interface will be great for new spreadsheet users and those who have unsuccessfully tried to master 1-2-3, Excel or other spreadsheet programs.

Experienced spreadsheet users, however, might find it hard to get used to. I’m familiar with 1-2-3, Excel and Quatro Pro and sometimes found myself confused by Improv’s new way of doing things.

Some of my old spreadsheet skills, such as copying formulas, simply don’t translate to Improv. People who have already learned other spreadsheet programs may be better off sticking with what they have.

My only major concern is that Improv is a memory hog. Lotus says it requires a PC with a 20-megahertz CPU and 4 megabytes of RAM, but the company recommends a faster 33-Mhz CPU and 6 megabytes of RAM.

I like to take advantage of Windows’ ability to run several programs at a time and, even on an 8-megabyte machine, I found myself running out of memory when using Improv with Word for Windows and a couple of other programs.

Improv has a suggested retail price of $495, but you can get it for $99--or sometimes even less--until May 31st.