Excel Turns Three
Microsoft has always led the Macintosh world by its spreadsheet nose, although other companies have come out with more powerful programs over the years. Wingz and Full Impact both addressed limitations in Excel, but neither made much of a dent in Excel’s market share. Excel for Windows is currently available, and will be released for the Mac when System 7.0 ships, although it runs fine under 6.0.x. Microsoft is waiting for System 7.0 so the Mac version of Excel can have the same IAC capabilities that the Windows version has through Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE).
I saw the two versions of Excel recently and was quite impressed, although it’s not the end-all of spreadsheets. I saw plenty of new features that should motivate many people to upgrade. This release of Excel looks almost identical between Windows, OS/2, and the Mac, can easily retain market share, and now requires less work to update, since over three quarters of the code is shared among the three versions.
I was most impressed by the thought that Microsoft put into the new interface. There is a "best fit" feature which automatically resizes all the columns so that all the data shows, no matter what the size of individual entries. Microsoft added a camera tool that takes a snapshot of an area of the spreadsheet or even another spreadsheet. Once you’ve taken the snapshot, you can move it to where you’re working, and any numerical changes will be updated in the snapshot so you can watch the numbers change as you work. The camera tool is available from the Toolbar, which provides several common commands and actions in iconic form, (similar to Full Impact’s implementation). Unlike Full Impact, Excel’s Toolbar doesn’t change to reflect likely commands for the mode that you’re in. Still, it’s a big help. One icon on the Toolbar is Sum, which you use by selecting a cell and clicking the Sum icon. Excel then guesses at which cells you want to add (usually the horizontal or vertical range that makes sense – it guessed well when I saw it), asks you if it has guessed correctly, and adds the numbers if you agree with it. Not earth-shattering, but helpful nonetheless. Other nice features include easy non-contiguous cell selection within formulas, word processor-like styles for consistent formatting, simple drawing tools for creating graphic objects that sit on top of the spreadsheet, and text samples before you click OK when you’re changing the formatting.
Charting is perhaps the most changed part of Excel. No more nonsense with having to open a separate chart document. Excel can now (like Wingz and Full Impact) position charts anywhere on the worksheet and allow you to move and resize them easily. Many more chart types are included, most notably 3D charts. Excel provides a decent method of changing the rotation and aspect of the 3D graphs so you can find the best viewing angle. Full Impact does this by forcing you to enter the numbers and see what happens, whereas Excel works in the same way DeltaGraph does, with a graphical model to manipulate. For USA Today-style graphics, you can even designate a graphic object from which Excel can build the bars of a bar chart. One of the more impressive charting features worked only with bar charts. You could select a bar of data and drag it up or down, changing the data in the spreadsheet and any other parts of the graph that would be affected by the resulting numeric change. I would have liked such a feature back in high school when I used VisiCalc to fudge experimental data from primitive chemistry labs. I learned so much more by having to numerically model the appropriate equations – just think what I could have done with this solver technology. Scary thought, eh?
The other big addition to Excel is something Bill Gates himself wanted. It is an outlining feature much like that in Word. By creating an outline, you can hide or show different levels of detail, so if you create a spreadsheet of travel expenses for your boss, you have to enter each one, but he only wants to see the category totals. Then, your boss’s boss wishes to only see the bottom line. In each case, using the outlining feature allows you to trade one spreadsheet around, merely collapsing different levels for different people. I think I personally prefer Full Impact’s View feature, which allows you to switch easily to different views of the same spreadsheet, but outlining is certainly powerful and useful.
The Mac and PC versions of Excel are similar, with only a few exceptions. The Mac version can print a spreadsheet, no matter how large, on a single sheet of paper. Irate users who always try to fit just a little more on the page will appreciate this feature, though if they print a large spreadsheet on a single page, it won’t be remarkably readable. The PC version doesn’t have that feature, probably because printing is more difficult in Windows and PostScript is less prevalent, but the PC version does have a well done 1-2-3 help feature for people switching to Excel. Just type the 1-2-3 command and Excel displays and demonstrate the proper Excel command. Alternately, if you are in a hurry, Excel performs the 1-2-3 command for you. Overall, I was impressed even though I seldom use spreadsheets, in part because when I do use them, I’m always irritated by a lot of the things that Microsoft has changed. Additionally, I highly approve of code-sharing between different platforms since rewriting code wastes time.
Microsoft — 800/426-9400 — 206/882-8080
MacWEEK — 08-Jan-91, Vol. 5, #1, pg. 1
InfoWorld — 14-Jan-91, Vol. 13, #2, pg. 5
MacUser — Mar-91, pg. 40
Macworld — Mar-91, pg. 101