HOT NUMBERS Competition in spreadsheet software grows


In the beginning, there was VisiCalc.

It was the first spreadsheet. It ran on Apple II machines and propelled the personal computer from the den into the office.

VisiCalc has faded into history, but the war between its successors for king of the spreadsheet heap has become intense.

For a great while the spreadsheet standard was Lotus 1-2-3; it became virtually a synonym for the genre. In the past few years, however, 1-2-3 has had a ferocious struggle with several challengers, notably Microsoft's Excel and Borland's Quattro Pro.

On the Macintosh, the battle is largely between Excel and Ashton-Tate's Full Impact. Lotus, however, is poised to release a Macintosh version of 1-2-3.

All of these spreadsheets are remarkably intelligent. They make assumptions as you build them to save you a lot of drudgery. For instance, it's likely that at the end of each row or column, you'll want to total the numbers in it. To do that, you use the simple addition function, usually "SUM," and specify the range -- if it's a row, then perhaps A2:A8.

All can handle the data entered into them as a database rather than a work sheet, which gives you a whole new set of tools for searching and quantifying data. All of them will create virtually every kind of chart you can imagine, almost automatically.

If you're using Windows, then the spreadsheet of choice is Microsoft's Excel for Windows. It's handsome and relatively easy to learn. The point-and-click mouse is handy in spreadsheets.

If you're not into Windows, then the choices are considerably wider -- 1-2-3, Excel or Quattro Pro. All these are extremely powerful and extremely expensive.

However, if you're not up to spending several hundred dollars in a discount house for a spreadsheet, consider SuperCalc 5. SuperCalc, from Computer Associates, has struggled on the fringes of the spreadsheet wars for years. Its publisher, Computer Associates, decided to attack its rivals in their soft underbellies -- it cut the price of SuperCalc 5 to $150 list. I couldn't find anything that Excel or Windows can do that SuperCalc can't.

It's not as easy to use as Excel for Windows, but it's not difficult, either. Documentation is ample, although the online tutorial is not as thorough as that in Excel for Windows. All things being equal, I like Excel for Windows better. But it will cost twice to three times as much as SuperCalc 5 in a discount store, and it's not that much better.

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