The Apps are Coming!

By Martin Houston

The often heard jibe that DOSers make at Linux is "Where is the Word processor?, Where is the Spreadsheet? Where is the Database? Is there anything that is suitable for people who are not in love with their computers?".

The reasons why what could be regarded as standard 'Suite' software have not been there from the start are mostly because why should anyone go to the trouble of turning out that sort of software for free? The mass nature of the market for such 'general purpose' software has meant that there are plenty of reasonably priced and well supported commercial offerings that do the job already. It is innovative uses for software rather than the mainstream where Linux and the GPL principal comes into its own.

Wanting standard suite software for Linux has up until now meant one of two choices: either use DOSEMU to run a DOS based package - probably not so hot if you share your machine with other users or have important background processing tasks. Secondly you can use Linux's ability to mimic other sorts of Unix and run real Unix packages. The disadvantages to this are that such packages are high quality but equally high price - typically hundreds to even thousands of pounds. Secondly even with paying a high price you may not get much joy with software support if you have to admit that you are running Linux only 'emulating' one of the Unix systems that the software supplier will commit to supporting.

This dilemma really needs a third choice to be offered that of real commercial applications for Linux. This choice is now there thanks to the Canadian Software House Angoss who have taken the enlightened and exciting step of offering the Smartware Plus software suite to Linux users compiled for Linux and at a price that will be agreeable to any Linux user's pocket.

Smartware used to be part of the portfolio of the major Database supplier Informix but the rights to it are now owned by Angoss who have continued on a long pedigree of development. Smartware has been around for a long time - I can remember ads for it (and good reviews) in the Unix magazines of the early eighties. One customer of mine is still running his day to day business on Smartware that must be about 12 years old by now.

The Smartware suite consists of Word Processor, Spreadsheet, Relational Database and Communications packages all joined together by an underlying Smart Programming Language and a RAD (Rapid Application Development) system to boot!

A word of warning to those of you suffering from prolonged exposure to Windows. Smartware is not naturaly WISIWIG. It is capable of running in text mode as well as an X Windows version (which does have multiple font & graphics capability). Smartware RAD sample application Smartware is ultra portable. Data and applications can be used unchanged by Smartware for DOS, Windows and many big Unix systems.

The ability to run in text mode means that Smartware will account very well for itself even on 386 based machines with limited memory. Text mode is colourful on the Linux console though and the system can be configured to print out with any fonts that your printer is capable of using.

In order to achieve multi-font capability on a text mode screen the Smart Word Processor has a status line which amongst other things gives the font number of the character under the cursor. Font numbers are married up to real fonts when you set up your printer. Under X windows the Word Processor does have a graphic page preview facility so you can get an idea how your pages will look with proportional fonts and actualt paragraph layout before committing to paper.

All the things that you would expect a proper word processor to do are there:

In short a good, no nonsense Word Processor without any pretensions to doing DTP or bogged down with dubious bells & whistles.

The Smart Spreadsheet has a long list of features and the ability to read Lotus 123 format data files. The main thing that Lotus & Excel users may find disconcerting is that it uses the R1C1 method of addressing cells instead of the Lotus originated letter and number method. The sheet is otherwise easy to use and has the advantage of all that lovely Linux virtual memory behind it. Worksheets of nearly a million cells each are possible.

The Smart Database is a full relational database. It is not an SQL based system but has ability to use SQL to access other databases.

Views and the data in tables behind them can be built up in an easy way with a screen painting approach to design attractive forms with coloured text and boxes if desired.

I am skipping briefly over the many minor parts of the Smartware system such as the calculator and directory browser to concentrate on the RAD facility.

Smartware is completely 'soft'. You can easily design your own structure of menus to join together elements of database, spreadsheet, word processor and even automated communications to fetch data from remote systems. The idea behind RAD is to let you use a package as you develop it.

You can 'Create a New Application' from within Smartware. This gives a skeleton menu system that can be fleshed out to give an application that has menus leading to the things that you need to do and no confusing diversions. The RAD (Rapid Application Development) system allows you to place new items in the menu tree and then piece by piece produce customised pieces of Smartware to go behind them. An application started with RAD can be finished off using the Smart Programming Language so Smartware can be considered as a complete environment that novice computer users need never leave to do their job. In this environment - people just using a computer to do a job like stock control or writing personalised form letters to clients, that the ability of Smartware to run on a terminal shines. Although the computer literate think of character terminals as 'boring' they are still the cheapest and most reliable way to get computing facility onto the desk.

The price of the Smartware suite? I am sure that you will be expecting me to talk about several hundred pounds.. don't loose interest just yet because the Single user, Non Commercial Use cost of the whole Smartware suite is just 35 + VAT! This is the price for the activation key to turn the demonstration version of Smartware into a full product capable of printing and saving files. The complete documentation pack weighing several kilos usually costs 100 but the UKUUG Linux SIG has negotiated a special deal with Angoss UK to bring the printed docs price down to just 50 with 10 carriage charge.

Smartware Documentation

Smartware contains a very good context sensitive help facility and tutorials on every module. There are also several documentation text files that can be printed out. However if you are going to be using the software seriously the printed documentation makes life even easier. The software itself - about 6MB of compressed data is available via ftp from www.angoss.com. Be warned that even on a quiet Sunday evening this took over 4 hours to down-load over a dial-up net connection. Angoss are also arranging with Lasermoon to have the demo included with future releases of Linux-FT. All you will need to do to turn the demo into a fully working system is to ring up Angoss UK. Pay by credit card and you will get a key to activate your software faxed or posted back to you.

What are the restrictions? Firstly the ultra cheap version of Smartware is for non-commercial use only. The exact definition of this is a bit hazy, especialy as they are inviting people to become proficient in the Rapid Application Development tool, but I guess they would frown on companies submitting purchase orders for dozens of 'personal use' keys! The second restriction, and somewhat annoying is that you are strictly allowed only a single session of Smartware at a time. That is to say you have to move from application to application within the same screen or X Window. You cannot for example have database and spreadsheet windows open at the same time.

Obviously Angoss wanted to stop the product being used by multiple users at once, as the full commercial use version is available for an appropriate commercial price. However I missed the ability to open up as many copies of an application as is natural to do the job in hand. Perhaps Angoss could come up with an alternative multi use detection that allowed multiple copies from a single screen/keyboard. That minor gripe aside the software has a very mature and professional feel to it and must be, next to Linux itself, the software bargain of the decade!

Why are they doing it? If you are discerning enough to run Linux you are getting the Smartware product that would cost a DOS or Windows user hundreds of pounds. The answer is that Angoss want more people to try Smartware, especially the RAD facilities to allow bespoke business applications to be created easily. Even if only a small fraction of Linux Smartware users go on to earn their living from writing with Smartware it is still a good sales opportunity of Angoss to sell on the full commercial product. With features like access to indivdual applications and database views by user ID and the ability to password protect or even encrypt data files Smartware is crying out to be used multi-user. This is why they should still make a living even with virtualy giving away the single user Linux version! There is nothing to stop you paying for the full commercial version of Smartware. A Linux Pentium should be able to serve dozens and dozens of terminal and network connected users. Linux and a Smartware tailor made RAD package could be the perfect and very attractivley priced office automation solution to many businesses.

For the personal Linux PC users we see a company willing to use the convenience of the Internet and CD for low cost software distribution happy to take a fair licence fee for some very good software. This is a trend we would very much like to encourage and I wish Angoss well with the venture.

If you want to obtain Angoss SmartWare Plus on CD ROM then talk to Lasermoon on on 01329 834944. Angoss UK themselves are on 01483 452303.