SERIOUS SOFTWARE FOR SPECIALISED USE
Software companies are finding new uses for the Spectrum. Mike Wright examines less-publicised products.
A GREAT DEAL of interest has been focused recently on the educational uses of home computers. At the same time there has been a less well-publicised rise of interest in the serious uses of machines such as the ZX-81 and Spectrum.
Major companies such as Plessey lead the way using ZX-81s with a Forth ROM to run and control manufacturing equipment. Software houses which are traditionally games-based, such as Richard Shepherd, Quicksilva and Visions, have all released applications software. While the majority have been word processors, databases, spreadsheets or financial packages, other more specialised programs are also available.
Heathplanner from Heath Computing is an appointments planning program costing £12. There are two programs included on the cassette. On side one is the instruction program, while the main program is on side two. Once the instructions are loaded the choice of stepping through the pages one at a time or of jumping to a particular page is presented.
The second page advises the user to make notes as he proceeds, yet when eventually I reached page 16 I found that I could have printed any of the pages by entering P. That seems to typify the instructions, which I found poorly written and difficult to understand.
Up to a maximum of 126 clients can be included but that number shrinks if a client has more than one appointment in a week, as you have to set up a different client code for each appointment. Each client is denoted by a code consisting of two letters and a number, e.g., HC1 may stand for Heath Computing.
The addition of new clients or the deletion of old ones is simple. A + (to add) or - (to delete), followed by the client code, is entered and that can be done from almost any position in the program. When a new client is added, up to two lines of extra information, which will usually be name and address or telephone number of the client, can also be specified.
Then the client's availability for appointments can be entered. To do that each day of the week is divided into 14 periods; the times of the periods are not defined, leaving it to the user's preference. The days are also numbered from 1 to 7, with Monday as 1. A possible appointment can then be input as, for example + 109 or +701, i.e., for the ninth period on Monday or the first period on Sunday. A list of them can be entered, with the last entry being considered as the optimum time for the client. Appointment options can be deleted in a similar way by using a - instead of +.
Clients with no appointment due in a particular week can be deferred. The choices allow the week number of their next appointment to be specified or, if a week number greater than 53 is used, to defer appointments indefinitely.
The details on any or all clients can also be examined, giving an alphabetic list of client codes or a summary list which shows details of any deferments, the number of possible appointment periods, the optimum period and part of the first line of notes. A chart showing the possible appointments for a client can also be displayed.
Once all the data on clients and the appointment times has been fed in, the program can be set to plan the week's appointments. In doing so, account is taken of client preferences and allowances made.
Depending on the complexity of the problem, that planning could take a long time. If the program finds more than one client who can make only one particular period, it will defer one of them until the following week. That, of course, makes no allowance for the importance of particular clients or the possibility of arranging alternative times. To do so would mean returning to the program to alter appointment times.
One more feature is the inclusion of a jottings page which allows up to 19 lines to be used for making notes, such as the client's holidays or special promotions. They can be incorporated later into the planning of appointments.
My first impressions of Heathplanner were entirely unfavourable. I found the instructions poorly written and found the main program difficult to load. As it reached the end of loading I kept getting Tape loading error. Once I had it loaded and saved it again I had no more difficulty. I then started to experiment with the sample data supplied and an understanding of the structure of the program and what I could, and could not do, was soon apparent.
Overall, the more I used the program the more I grew to like it but I still prefer to do my planning using a diary.
For insurance salesmen who wish to improve their sales pitch, Inform Soft ware has produced Investment, Insurance, Information. The program consists of a main menu which allows the user to select such options as whole life, term and endowment assurance home, health and travel insurance, pension plans, business/commercial insurance and investment information.
Selecting most of the options leads to a list of the types of policies which can be provided by any bank or insurance broker. In some cases, calculations are done but seem to be designed to show the benefits of taking insurance today rather than tomorrow. I would not recommend the program to the casual user who wishes to see what possibilities exist for insurance or investment. As a selling aid for trained brokers or salesmen it could be useful, although the problem exists of updating the figures constantly. The version received for review was an early one and no price was quoted.
One question faced by many builders, and DIY fanatics intent on building their own extensions, is how much it will cost. Building Price from J Redman is a useful program which could provide the answer. Like Heathplanner, the instructions consist of a separate program which must be loaded and read before the main program is loaded.
On loading the main program the plans are entered. The program leads the user step by step, asking for measurements for the building, starting with the foundation width and ending with the height of the first floor.
Once the measurements are entered a plan of the building is drawn and the directions of the joists sought. They are also drawn on the plan, which can then be printed. Constructing the floor plans is done next, followed by a question-and-answer session which provides the program with any extra data it requires on tiles and the like.
The user is then returned to the menu which shows that the plans have been entered and offers the choice of listing the materials, the area covered or the complete details, as well as the price calculator and save file options.
The total cost is calculated by working through another question-and-answer session, in which the user must input the cost of the materials as they are prompted. The program also allows estimates of wastage to be made for each material and takes that into account when determining the cost. At the end a total cost of the materials is calculated.
Provided you are familiar with the terms and methods of the construction industry, the program could save time and worry with your calculations. Unfortunately we were sent no details of the cost or availability of the program.
For readers interested in writing applications software two books may be of interest. The first is Putting Your Spectrum to Work by Chris Callender, published by Interface Publications at £4.95. At first glance it looks a big disappointment. It seems to consist solely of program listings which have been photocopied from the printout of a ZX printer, with little in the way of explanation as to how the program is constructed or works.
Included are programs for a database, spreadsheet and word processor. Other programs include ones for drawing graphs, keeping accounts, stock control and electric circuit design. In all, there are 15 programs. The final program, Boss, shows how several of the programs can be merged to provide a complete system. Although they have all been written primarily for the 48K Spectrum, the final chapter gives a list of modifications, where necessary, for the programs to run on the 16K version.
The programs are of a very simplistic nature but provide an insight into how to start writing programs for serious uses. The biggest problem I found with the book was following the listings as I was typing them in but those I entered work first time.
The second book is Business Programming on your Spectrum by Peter Jackson and Peter Goode, published by Phoenix Publishing Associates at £6.95. It is designed for sales and marketing managers and that is reflected in the programs listed. The style is different from that of Callender. It starts with a gentle introduction to Basic programming and the principles of programming, before starting on the first of the seven programs included.
The programs are for adjusting a sales trend, drawing graphs, forecasting sales, keeping customer records, tracking sales and, like the other, a program which packages the others. Critics could argue that the chapters on Basic programming and its principles are too short - they are in 36 pages - for a complete novice but they are remarkable for the clarity and conciseness with which they cover the subject.
For each program an introduction provides a short description which covers how the program works and why it is a suitable area for using a computer. A description and, in some cases, a flow-chart of the program is given before the listing. Jackson's programs are more complex and are approximately twice the length of Callender's but length is not necessarily a measure of program capability.
The overall quality of the printing and presentation of Business Programming is superior to Putting Your Spectrum to Work and although the listings have been produced from a dot matrix printer, they are much clearer and more readable. I found them easier to follow when typing them in.
The two books are aimed at different markets and as such should be considered independently. Putting Your Spectrum to Work is an excellent book as far as it goes. It would have been improved by the use of a better quality in the reproduction of the listings and by including more description of the workings of the programs but the number and variety of the programs compensates for that.
Although Business Programming is aimed at a smaller section of the market, it provides sufficient scope to make it of interest to a wider group of businessmen. Both books should make a useful addition to the bookshelves of most businessmen who want to write programs or who seek a clearer understanding of how some of their commercial programs work.
Heath Computing, 7 The Meadows, Flackwell Heath, Bucks HP10 9LX.
Inform Software, 3 Treesdale Close, Birkdale, Southport PR8 2EL.
Interface Publications, 9-11 Kensington High Street, London W8 5NP.
Phoenix Publishing Associates Ltd, 14 Vernon Road, Bushey WD2 2JL.