Computers: Software with a basic instinct for figures: Spreadsheets are super at calculating figures and excel at presenting them. But Andrew Brown finds they can also complicate matters

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The Independent Online
THE MAIN reason I use a spreadsheet is that it makes indecent suggestions in the voice of the villainess from Basic Instinct, something accountants too seldom do in my experience.

Spreadsheets, the programs which computerise ledgers of figures, have been little covered on this page because is hard to think of a use for them in a normal household and in business the uses are obvious. I keep my expenses on mine; they are invaluable for this, especially when foreign travel is involved, since you enter the rate of exchange once for each currency and then the spreadsheet does all the conversions, producing wonderfuly pretty and organised looking statements.

The other reason for ignoring them is more general. You might call it Brown's first law of upgrading: It's Never Worth the Effort.

Simple greed first led me to set up a system of linked and consolidated expense claims in 1989, when Computer Associates reduced the price of its Dos spreadsheet, Supercalc 5, to pounds 90. Supercalc came with four manuals, which, took up about four inches of shelf space. A year later, I upgraded to Windows, and Microsoft Excel 3, which came, I think, with six manuals: I am not sure because I never opened two of them at all and all are now in storage.

Excel 3 did not allow me to set up 'three-dimensional' spreadsheets as Supercalc had done. In all other respects, it was infinitely easier to use and more powerful. But to consolidate a mass of expense claims and reach one total, I had to 'link' separate sheets, so that the summary refers to nine or ten separate files on disk, each of which must be loaded when I want to look at it. Each time it does this, it triggers off the 'question' sound effect, which was set up some months ago to ask in a Sharon Stone voice 'have you ever . . . on cocaine?'

In order to escape from the questioning voice - imagine the effect if you are on the telephone to someone while doing your expenses - I decided to switch to the latest version of Lotus 1-2-3, which also used three-dimensional worksheets. This came with only one manual, half an inch thick.

I thought this was real progress until I tried to make it do exactly what I wanted. The result was like trying to nail down a marquee in a hurricane.

At first, the program would not set up dates my way. I want it to say 'December 19 1994' and it insists on saying 'Dec-19-94'. This is a small thing, I admit, but frustrating. Then I discovered that nine files which in Excel had been about 4,000 bytes each in size had bloated to 1.7 megabytes - nearly 50 times as large - when consolidated into one Lotus file. This turned out to be avoidable: all I had to do was to avoid formatting columns and rows the obvious way and do it a long and complicated way.

Then I spent a couple of days working out how to sort summary sheets so that the unpaid expenses were at the top without reducing them to a heap of gibberish. In all this, the only help I got in the Lotus forum on Compuserve, the computer information and messaging network, was from Lotus employees, which I regard as a bad sign. Greatly loved products tend to generate obsessional users, who will work for hours helping out the less fortunate.

But the real problem came when I was trying to make 16 sheets in the file resemble each other exactly and the top, summary sheet, hardly at all. There is a facility to 'Group' sheets, so that the changes you make to the layout of one are reflected in all of them. But it is easy to slip up with this and change sheets you did not mean to. And there seems to be no way easily to make new sheets conform to a previously set up 'template', as I could in Excel.

The real trouble came when I decided to write a 'macro' - a sequence of instructions like a small program, initiated with one keystroke - to group and ungroup sheets. There is a wonderfully simple and clever way of drawing 'push-buttons' on to the sheet, which will, when 'pushed', carry out almost any sequence of actions. You could have a whole row of increasingly unhelpful adages available at the push of a button, depending on how disastrous your financial situation is.

But you still have to write the macros attached to the button first. It was simple enough to record one that switched Group mode on and another to switch Group mode off. But what I wanted was a single button which would switch it on if off and vice versa.

It took almost three hours, in spite of or maybe because of the best efforts of the help system. Finally I gave up in despair. All this is the more disappointing because Lotus's word processor, Ami Pro, is wonderfully easy to use.

I am now in the market for a spreadsheet with one manual about two-inches thick, which will not ask stupid questions and will not give dumb answers, either. Does such a thing exist?


1-2-3: Lotus; 0784-455445; pounds 280

Excel: Microsoft; 0734 270001; pounds 375

Quattro Pro: Borland; 0800 212727; pounds 92

(Street prices inclusive of VAT)

Availability: Dealers, superstores, selected retail outlets.

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