Java-based applications shows promise, but needs work

After you copy about 6000 files to your hard disk and adjust a few important parameters, you will see a Java-based desktop working area that leaves much to be desired. Lotus' eSuite is an all-in-one integrated office application, but I say that with lots of caveats.

It has everything from word processing to address books, from electronic mail to terminal emulation for both IBM 3270 and 5250. Indeed, it reminded me of Lotus' early (and much misguided) foray into that arena called Symphony.

The opportunity with eSuite is to demonstrate how you can do some clever things with Java and run your daily computing life. The challenge is that a Java-based user interface really isn't going to get anyone (other than maybe Scott McNealy) to stop using their existing applications just on religious grounds.

For eSuite to catch on, it has to offer compelling features when compared with the present range of desktop office suites from Microsoft, Corel and Lotus itself. Because it is written in Java, eSuite should exploit network-based applications in a new and exciting way.

For example, it should run on a wide variety of platforms and operating systems. It should use the Web in ways traditional suites can't, such as allowing users to incorporate its Java applets into their custom-built applications. But I found eSuite struck out there -- so far, it doesn't do any of those things.

I tested eSuite on a Windows 95 machine with oodles of RAM. Lotus recommends 32MB, but I wouldn't even try it with anything less than 64MB. You will also need to drop your monitor configuration to support 256 colours. It will run on Windows NT, but two versions of Windows is about as cross-platform as it gets.

I tried to create various documents in its native format and import existing files in various Microsoft and Corel Office products. I found the word processor weak: the total set of functions isn't much more than cut and paste, formatting text and printing and saving files. It is on par with an early CP/M version of WordStar I used in the 1980s.

The address book and Web browser are also quite primitive. If you have an existing address book, the only way to move it over to eSuite's address book is to save each contact as a VCard -- one by one.

So with all of these missing features, what is in those 6000 files, you ask? eSuite's Java classes and libraries. Although they are small, they multiply like rabbits. The thought of maintaining such a menagerie seems daunting.

This version is far from being finished. I would hesitate to call it a preview - it is more like an initial set of things to play with. Major pieces are missing. First, you can't import or export many file formats.

For example, the only spreadsheets you will be able to create are .wk1s, a format that was used about a decade ago in most offices. That limits the ability to do much with the product. It wouldn't make sense to stop using your current office suite and start using eSuite without having a way to carry your legacy documents forward.

Second, you can't yet run the software over a network. It doesn't recognise existing networked drive assignments and your file system beyond its own directory. This is a real lost opportunity to show how network-savvy Java can be.

Third, the way eSuite is started will get some grins, given you load the Java virtual machine and environment from a DOS command line. That is a small nit to pick, but a very lame one.

Of course, these problems will be fixed, and missing items will eventually be added -- maybe in time to call it Version 1.0 later next quarter. But for now, eSuite left a sour taste on my hard disk. I'll hold off a while before taking another nibble.