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Lotus Approach- by Christopher B. Wright

New technology always redefines the requirements for older technology. Once upon a time, word processors were simple programs designed to make writing letters and memos easier. With the advent of more powerful hardware for the PC, the demands required of a word processor grew. As corporations began to use word processors as "standard" tool for company documentation, they wanted word processors to be able to handle more. Today, word processors are almost as powerful as many desktop publishing software packages, and in a few years they may be indistinguishable from each other.

The world wide web is also creating new demands for applications. Suddenly this medium is encouraging word processors to not only support HTML, but SGML (the overarching language that HTML is derived from) as well.

Database applications are also being redefined by the web. Because the web is such an accessible way to share information and because databases can keep track of information so well, it seems only natural that the two should be connected in some way. Today, databases are the 'back ends" that pump information into pre-formatted templates on many major web sites. Databases are used to allow online customers to process their online purchases. Databases, it seems, will be an integral part of the web of the near future.

As an example, take Project:ToolBase, a feature of the Desktop Communications web site that I have been sweating over for some time. P:TB is, simply enough, a listing of all OS/2 compatible publishing software (with hardware listings still under development). People can browse the site and see what OS/2-compatible publishing software is out there, whether they're looking for something specific (like OS/2 MIDI sequencing software) or just looking. This seems like the obvious situation for a database: I enter all the information into my database, keeping it up to date, and the Database generates a web page displaying the information I want displayed. This would allow the information to be updated quickly and consistently (something not as easy when you need to change all the information one web page at a time, especially when the database starts to grow).

In this new age of database management, you need more than a robust, easy-to-set-up-and-configure database program that can keep track of large volumes of information quickly and reliably while at the same time allowing a novice to get up and running in a relatively short period of time. You also need a program that can create database reports (summary pages of selected database information) that are HTML pages (for small companies), as well as databases that can link to your web server and actually manage web pages themselves (for larger companies).

In the classic world of database applications, Lotus Approach is a top-notch and world class application. It has just about every tool you'd ever think you'd need in a database and is a very easy-to-use application -- as easy-to-use as any database will ever get without sacrificing important features.

In the new, web-enabled world of database applications, however, Lotus Approach fares much, much more poorly. While Approach is touted by Lotus as a "web enabled" application, these functions are so basic and unusable that one wonders why Lotus even bothered putting them in. In fact, the "web enabled features" seem more like a thinly disguised ploy to get users to buy IBM's DB/2 product and Lotus Notes rather than an attempt at making truly useful database-to-web integration features. If you're looking for a superior database application for traditional workplace database tasks, Lotus Approach is something you should definitely consider. But if you're looking for a database that will help you manage your information and display it on the web, Lotus Approach by itself is a waste of your money -- you'll also need DB/2 and (probably) Lotus Notes before you can do anything seriously.

The Good

As a traditional database, it's difficult to think of one that combines the ease-of-use and power of Lotus Approach. Other than a few annoying User Interface and semantic quirks, Approach is a joy to use.

There are a lot of good things to say about Approach. I cannot say how impressed I am with it's power and flexibility when defining fields, creating the layouts of your data entry screens (.GIF, 48K) and database reports, and of course actually entering the information itself. Approach is powerful and easy enough to use that a novice can get started reasonably quickly ("reasonably quickly" in database talk means after messing around with it for about a week.)

Approach allows you to set up notebook-style tabs that work in much the same way that tabs in Lotus 1-2-3 does -- dividing your database into anything you want: multiple formats for reports, data entry screens and so forth. Unfortunately, anything you do to one tabbed section -- like sorts and searches -- is done to all tabs.

And Approach is a relational database: it can pull data from more than one database file and use it in the one you're working on, going so far as to update the other files if any of that information changes. Approach can import and export a lot of different file formats: Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel, Oracle, dBase III and IV, Fox Pro and more.

You can also define, save and reuse searches and sorts. For example, I have a saved search (.GIF, 12K) in my Project:ToolBase database that immediately searches for all Desktop Publishing software and displays them in alphabetical order by software title. I also have searches for Graphics Design, Multimedia Authoring and Web Creation software that do the same thing.

The Bad

While Approach allows you to set up tabs within your database (to allow you to create multiple reports, or different views for data entry when you're keying in data) it doesn't allow you to assign different searches to those tabs. For example, when I'm using the P:TB database I think it would be nice if one tab automatically searches for and displays only software, and another tab would automatically search for and display only hardware. Alas, this is not to be: a search affects everything in the database, including reports. This lack genuinely surprised me, since it seemed like Lotus had thought of just about everything else.

Another difficulty I had was linking two or more databases together to set up a relational database. While linking the databases seems simple enough, it doesn't seem to work right. If that last criticism seems a bit vague, that's because the documentation doesn't explain it thoroughly enough. (See "The Ugly," below.)

And finally, I couldn't possibly write a review without a complaint about the user interface. First of all, as a hint to any programmer out there, the user should be able to a) resize the application window so it opens to whatever size they prefer, and b) move the window so it opens over whatever part of the desktop they want it to. Approach does neither of these, it always opens to the same size and same position on my screen, regardless of how I've opened it and resized it before. This is frustrating! People with larger monitors and people who work at higher resolutions don't want a single application taking up more than 40% of their screen space unless absolutely necessary.

And I'm a bit frustrated at Approach's insistence that the design area of a database use the same layout that a report would -- in other words, it defaults to a US-standard 8  x 11 piece of paper. There is no "screen" setting, which would make a lot more sense if you're building an interface for data entry. Why would the screen display of a database be concerned with page height, width, and margin settings? It shouldn't, but I haven't found a way around it yet.

The Ugly

But the most unforgivable sin of Lotus Approach is the documentation itself. Alas, Lotus is following the corporate trend of including only the bare minimum in product documentation, and while it is the largest of all the manuals in Lotus SmartSuite, it is not thorough. It walks you through all the basics for building a simple set of databases, but it doesn't allow for any deviation in ideas and doesn't cover alternative setups. As simple as it is, Approach has powerful tools that need thorough documenting, and the manual is not up to the task. It's ironic, because it's the largest of all the manuals included in SmartSuite, but in order for it to be useful it needs roughly two hundred more pages.

Documentation is a pet peeve of mine (I am, after all, a technical writer) and a lot of people respond to this peeve with the counter argument that no one really reads the manual anyway. This is true for a lot of people in a lot of situations, but when you're using a powerful program or a high-end feature, a clearly written, well-documented manual is a must. The Lotus Approach manual is fine for someone just starting out who wants to do very simple things on a database, but you can only go so far on it, and it won't teach you to really use the program to its fullest extent.

The Modern

In the more modern (some would even say "trendy") world of on-line, web based databases, Approach is not quite as useful as I would have liked it to be. Unfortunately, IBM clearly intends for this application to work in conjunction with DB/2 in some way -- a clever way of getting two powerful programs sold by the same mother company to work cooperatively instead of competitively, but it's a cheat for end users and small businesses because DB/2 isn't always an affordable or practical solution.

Lotus Approach does have Internet and web integration, to some extent, but this level of integration and its practicality is not all it should. I'll explain the degree of integration below.

Level 1: FTP database to FTP site, open database remotely.

Approach can save the database file to an Internet site, and other Approach users can open it from that FTP site. This can be a slow process, since Approach files aren't necessarily svelte and quick to download.

My take on this feature is it's a lot more useful on a network or intranet, where bandwidth is less of a concern, than on an Internet or extranet site.

Level 2: Create static HTML pages based on reports.

This feature is just terrible. Lotus Approach can convert a report into a series of static HTML pages (.GIF, 5K). It can, for example, take a bunch of product descriptions and turn them into individual web pages and link them together so you can browse through them. However, it doesn't retain any formatting to speak of. It will emulate the position of fields by creating tables, but it won't retain any graphics in the document, won't keep the background color, the text color, font type, font size, anything. All you get is a bare-bones, basic layout, which is not acceptable to many web sites trying to promote a uniform, corporate image. I used this feature for Project:ToolBase, and it took me hours afterwards to modify each page so it would resemble my web site.

Why can't Approach use more of Word Pro's web features? I don't know. The manual devotes no more than two pages to the whole thing, so it's not much help either.

Level 3: Work in conjunction with a web server.

The most mysterious of the three methods, I have no idea how it works because I don't have a web server that supports it. I can't really report on its usefulness.


As you can see, I don't think much of Approach as a database for Web publishing. Now, I have to admit it's quite possible this criticism isn't wholly fair. While it doesn't appear that Approach has any robust Internet integration features to speak of, especially when it comes to creating static web pages, there might be a few tools I missed because it wasn't covered in the documentation. With only two pages devoted to covering the Internet tools there could be a whole lot of tools I'm missing out on. If that's the case, however, in my defense I will say that if Lotus can't be bothered to document it, I can't be bothered to credit them with having it.

I'm really, really torn on this product. On the one hand, I'm absolutely impressed with the database program itself, and feel that it's a top-notch, powerful and useful product in that respect. On the other hand, when it comes to the web I find it useless for what I need it to do, and I don't have the financial wherewithal to set it up the way they apparently intend it to be used. I find myself loving it for its power as a database, and despising it for its inability to transfer information over the web in any particularly useful manner.

My recommendation: if you're looking for an "old school" database, and have no plans to use this database on a web site (be it intra, extra or Internet based site), Lotus Approach is an excellent tool to use, thanks to its ease of use and logical design. If you're looking for a standalone database that can translate its data into static web pages, avoid Approach like the plague. If you're looking for a database that will interact with a web server, you'll have to evaluate Approach yourself because I don't have the ability to test those features.

* * *

Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Richmond, VA area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is also a member of Team OS/2.


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