The age of integrated business software dawned, softly, in the fall of 1982. That there was no blare of trumpets seems odd, since joining together the basic tools of small-business management within one package, on a single floppy disk, was a breakthrough of dramatic consequence. Nevertheless, the world's first microcomputer program that was able to meld a spreadsheet, a database, graphics, telecommunications, and a word processor received from its creator, Context Management Systems, just about the the dullest name imaginable: Context MBA. The management then proceeded, inexplicably, to squeeze its promotion purse as if the product were just another adding machine.

Hardly had the sky lightened in the West, however, when a second, similarly multiplicitous program emerged back East, this one enticingly called 1-2-3. (Unlike MBA, 1-2-3 lacked "4" -- word processing.) Lotus Development Corp. booked magazine pages as if there were no tomorrow, and boosted their 1-2-3 to the heavens. And Lotus, largely on the strength of having sold some quarter of a million copies in the first year, is now a celebrated $360-million public corporation. Putting it discreetly, Context Management is not.

Now a fresh wave of perhaps 20 self-proclaimed integrated software programs has crashed on our shores. (And, all too often, crash they do.) Reversing a trend, the new wave can hardly be called consumer-friendly. In fact, it is often downright consumernasty. This time the packages come not in three or four sectors, but in five, six, and even seven. Since each deals with far more data than its predecessors, each requires far more complicated keyboard commands than before, throwing intuition -- the anticipatable progression that makes software accessible to the laity -- to the winds. Nor, unfortunately, do the tutorial texts that ostensibly serve to explain how everything comes together yield more than the vaguest of direction.

This clearly is not a profitable course for the 5,000 or so companies that are estimated to constitute the microcomputer software industry. Last year, the accounting firm of Arthur Young & Co. studied microcomputer usage in the top 1,500 Fortune companies and found that almost two-thirds of the responding executives used microcomputers infrequently, or not at all. The executives, it seems, couldn't figure out how to make the things work. No doubt good old American enterprise will come to the rescue of this expensive absurdity. In fact, roving bands of human tutors are even now training executives at upwards of $400 per day. Even so, the executive will hardly learn how to get deeply inside one of these integrated systems unless he or she buys one, and buying one intelligently has become nearly impossible.

From on high, the systems look much like one another. But beneath their surfaces lie twists and turns as unlikely -- and as marvelous -- as an Escher staircase. Some suffer severe faults in precisely the places where others excel. Indeed, the potential of integrated systems has yet to be reached, not for want of technology, but because system designers simply have not polished their products in the rush to get there first with the most. The result is that, without reliable advice, would-be customers can't hope to sort out the particulars. And where do you go for reliable advice? Certainly not to the outsides of the packages, nor to double-spread advertisements, nor to cursory reviews in magazines. Nor, least of all, to computer stores.

In such a situation -- the situation being crudely defined at $600 to $700 a pop -- most managers will go for the safe play: Lotus, the producer that already has met with acceptance. Thus it falls to the other software companies in the race to become recognized on their own merits. But how? With 1-2-3 as the best-selling business software in the history of the world, Lotus has such a wide lead that even to try to catch up requires spending millions of dollars of promotion funds that obscure younger companies just don't have. Nor, with IBM Corp. now in the arena and with most public software stocks still downtrodden, are venture capitalists any too eager to help them out.

Moreover, the potential market has grown more savvy and computer-wise in two years. It is possible that the novelty of integrated applications has worn thin enough to call for a second look. Businesspeople ought to ask if they really need such marginally distinguishing features as exploding 3-D pie charts, calendars that keep track of lunch appointments, or spreadsheets with enough room to "what-if" the universe.

What, after all, is wrong with stand-alone software standing alone? A word processor to handle mailing from its own self-contained database of addresses, a database to monitor customer activity, a spreadsheet to model financial projections, and a graphics program if you really want to show off. Why would you need to integrate any of it?

One industry answer -- and it is unassailable -- is that piecemeal acquisition of high-performance, dedicated software, written to accomplish a sole purpose, often costs more than an entire integrated system. For instance, the latest all-inclusive-package version of the best-selling word processor, MicroPro International Corp.'s WordStar 2000 Plus, retails for a whopping $595; not to be outdone, Ashton-Tate's newest database manager, dBase III, goes for an extra-whopping $100 more. And, of course, neither can communicate with another computer on its own nor follow a customized sequence of instructions triggered by a keystroke, as most integrated programs can. Not only do the parts of these integrated systems approach standalone power, but a degree of togetherness is thrown in for free. Besides, even if they fall short of expectation, the integrated systems have little to be ashamed of: Standalones have loads of room to improve, as well.

If that were the end of the argument, probably the brash fraction of publishers that have struggled to give birth to yet one more integrated program would at least survive the ordeal. After all, with gross profit margins in the neighborhood of 600%, you don't have to sell many units to meet the mortgage. But for them, the situation deteriorated markedly with IBM's microcomputer software debut last fall.Several years after opening its Personal Computer innards to outside software writers and licensing products back from them, IBM, like a retriever shaking off water, has doused the market with a host of business programs of its own devising. There is nothing flashy among them, but the collection is attractive: conservatively bound, pastel-colored packages devoted to specialized applications -- payroll management, accounts receivable, general ledger, accounts payable, and so on. They aren't integrated, exactly, but enough are able to share information among enough others to throw a scare into the integrated crowed -- and their stockholders.

That was one shoe. Another is IBM's recently released TopView a low-priced ($149) windowing system that is said to be able to handle several programs concurrently. Of course, well-heeled IBM has plenty more shoes to drop. It could come out with an integrated system of its own, for example, or buy a chunk of a publisher like it bought into Rolm Corp. and Intel Corp, or introduce a closed operating system for a line of desktops that would run only IBM-brand software, squashing the competition as flat as a floppy. (On the other hand, the Justice Department might well pump it back up.)

Even if IBM can make marketing mistakes as flagrantly as the next guy -- and already has (witness the misbegotten introduction of the PCjr.), it is probably no accident that Lotus has hedged its bet on the IBM PC by coming out with a variant of Symphony exclusively for Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh. When Big Blue comes to town, no matter how clumsily, there is no hiding.

Thus it seems likely that only the fittest of the systems will flourish. Already one company -- Business Solutions Inc., and its rabbit-motifed Jack2 -- has folded its tent. Another, Ovation Technologies Inc., ran into serious problems last summer before it could bring out its sophisticated but bug-written product. So far, anyway, the rest are very much alive -- and kicking each other. One lays claim to being faster, deeper, easier, and generally better than the other; and in some feature, each can back up such claims. But truth be known, somewhere else within each system is a hunk of putty that falls out as soon as the unwary takes the package home and puts it to work.

Where the soft spot is cannot readily be detected. For one thing, mastering a given system doesn't unlock the closets of the others, any more than reading The Hite Report suggests what Wuthering Heights is about. Because they approach integration differently, have different command structures, and perform even basic tasks with differing efficiency, each must be learned afresh on its own terms. And how do you judge what you find out? If a sports car accelerates from 0 to 60 in eight seconds, everyone knows it is damned fast. But what is a prospective purchaser to conclude from the fact that a given system is said to sort 200 records in two seconds?

All integrated systems, your computer salesperson will tell you, can perform at least five functions -- database management, spreadsheet modeling, text writing, graph drawing, and telecommunications. But you will be told wrong. One system doesn't have telecommunications. The computer salesperson will also tell you that all systems can open up the screen into several windows. Wrong once more: Two of the systems don't do windows. Well, anyway, the main thing is that they are all integrated; everything goes with everything else. Wrong again, Num Lock.

And so on down the list. Can each system solve an internal rate of return equation with the stroke of a single key? Or recognize such business English as "profits" or "first quarter"? Or "memorize" a sequence of keystrokes for you? Or set titles in different styles of type around a graph? Or allow you to write your own programs without going to MIT?

Those are just a few concerns that are floating at the surface. Further down, does a spreadsheet calculation respond as fast in one corner of the spreadsheet as another? Can you perform a mailmerge from the database, and if so, how many parts of a form letter can be individualized? What is a database, anyway? Can you send out invoices automatically? Maybe it can raise a value to a power, but can it take a cube root? Does it use logarithmic scales? Calculate in reverse Polish notation? Draw 2-Y axes graphs?

Rushing in where angels fear to tread, INC. has tried to make some order from the chaos. What we have done here is to isolate the elemental powers of eight devices -- Symphone, Corporate MBA, Framework, Enable, Aura, Open Access, Smart, and Integrated 7 -- sort out their claims and realities, and then ask a few basic questions of each of the entries.

How Integrated is Integrated?

Integration ought to mean that the program can gather together pieces of work from wherever you might have stored them in your data files and be able to intermix sections of the pieces on the screen. By this definition, a mere third of the systems qualify as integrated.Framework, Smart, and Enable let you pick files from any data disk and place them in contiguous areas on the screen. Thus, you could study portions of eight separate financial models at once, say; or you could, all at the same time, write two letters, manipulate three spreadsheets, and examine extracts from three databases. The remaining systems deal with only one file at a time. That doesn't mean they are automatically out of desktop contention: Any one of them can massage that file with sufficient vigor for many business applications.

As part of the definition, an integrated system should be able to move sections en masse from one work space into another -- take an extract from a database of, perhaps, a backlog of orders and put it into a spreadsheet, where the numbers can be used to develop cost and sales projections. All the systems mentioned here move material to some degree, but some do it a lot more dexterously than others. A few can't copy text into spreadsheets, or even into a second text. And fewer than half -- Framework, Smart, and Enable -- can automatically take one spreadsheet's entries and arithmetically consolidate them with another's. A business with regional offices might make effective use of that capability; a centralized one, perhaps none at all.

However, much integration is achievable ought to be marshalled via a minimum of keyboard commands. But not a scarcity: An early candidate, Ovation, produced a prototype edition that reduced the number of English-language phrases used in the command structure to a scant two dozen. Unfortunately, in the midst of squeezing the last excess syllable out of its menu selections, the company went into liquidation. On the other hand, Integrated 7 offers no apologies for rambling on to several hundred logically connected command choices.

Ultimately, however, it is not the sheer number of commands that muddle your mind: It is how efficiently they run the system. Corporate MBA offers an anorexic 12 commands in its word processor, but it is the hardest to use and the least effective text element of the lot. To confuse consumer matters all the more, learning one set of commands is of no help in negotiating another system; each has its own peculiar setup of function keys, method of data entry, menu references, and so on.

In an ideal world, integrated software would be able to perform any of its appointed tasks -- write text, crunch numbers, find addresses -- without the user's having to make accommodations for the differences of disciplines. Whether in spreadsheet mode, word processing, or database, the surroundings on the screen would remain the same, and the function keys would perform the same tasks. But of these eight, only one fulfills even part of that mission: Any screen display in Symphony can be changed with one keystroke from a spreadsheet into, say, a place to compose a letter. In that way, sales information retrieved from a database could stay in position on the screen while the numbers involved were plugged into a business model of the coming year, annotated in text, and illuminated by a graph.

Along with other advanced software systems for microcomputers, such as IBM's TopView, Quarterdeck Office Systems's Desq, and VisiCorp's VisiON, integrated packages have taken to dividing the screen into sections. These so-called windows may appear side-by-side as contiguous panes, may overlap one another like a fanned deck of cards (the one in front obliterating most of its fellows), or may exist as sort of black holes with little name tags, at the ready to spring full-blown onto the screen on command.

Four of the systems -- Framework, Enable, Corporate MBA, and Symphony -- let you design your own windows, bringing sections of work from different elements to the screen at once. That can be an advantage in dealing with information from various sources, but it also can clutter the screen with patches that in themselves don't contain much data.

What to Expect from a Spreadsheet

If an integrated system is to be an effective productivity tool, at its heart must be a well-conceived counting room: its spreadsheet. There, often in three dimensions (Framework, Smart, and Aura are able to interconnect a series of spreadsheets such that an entry in one changes data in the others), not only can the current business of business be conducted as on a ledger of old, but an analytical model of the way things might be in the future can be intelligently constructed. And in the new wave there is plenty of extra room to engage in financial exercises: While 1-2-3 boasted as many rectangles (or what in electronic terminology are called cells) on its surface as 511 full-width Eye-Ease paper ledger sheets, now Symphony hefts the equivalent of close to 20,000. On them you can perform calculations in split-seconds that no old-style mathematician could have figured out with a life-time supply of pencils.

Since spreadsheet operations are so critical to financial reporting and analysis, at bottom you should be able quickly to maneuver around the immense sheet, in which you may have scattered numerical compositions like a dog burying bones. To enable you to navigate among the cells that make up a range (that is, a discrete rectangle of values on which calculations are performed), each spreadsheet has a "go-to" function that whisks the cursor from one cell to any other anywhere in the vast reaches of the sheet. In addition, you can identify ranges by name as well as number, such that you wind up at an address called, say, "sales" or, God willing, "net profit."

But after this vital go-to command, which is common to all, the systems take off in different -- and not always welcome -- directions. When you are placing data into cells, for example, you ought to be able to enter the data while simultaneously sending the cursor to the next contiguous empty cell via a single stroke of an arrow key. Some systems, however, make you push the enter key each time -- an annoying throwback to calculator days. You should also expect to be able to compose a formula, by which the computer is told what to do with the data, simply by sweeping through the cells in question and highlighting them in reverse video -- a technique called pointing. Two systems don't point at all, in one of them, you have to connect the referenced cells laboriously, one by one. A large consideration in manipulating spreadsheet data is whether, in case you hit the wrong key, a mistakenly deleted block of figures can be recovered. Only Framework holds a spreadsheet erasure in a computer's internal memory long enough to get it back from the trash bin.

A spreadsheet also ought to supply adequate room to line-edit a formula or title if you want to change it. And word-processing commands and cursor controls should work within the line to be edited. The setup for referencing cells should be letters of the alphabet for columns and Arabic numerals for rows (thus cell A1 is the spreadsheet's top left corner). You should be able to split the work space into at least two parts, so that distant areas of the spreadsheet can be brought together for comparison; only Aura does not split a spreadsheet window.

Words, Words, Words

Business applications are not apt to demand such text-processing fillips as indexing or subscripting. However, a few systems have touches that distinguish them from the bunch. For instance, for anyone who does a lot of writing, being able to delete a word simply by moving the cursor to any letter within that word, rather than precisely to the beginning, gains fluidity; Enable can. And one paragraph ought to be able to be broken up into two paragraphs by a single keystroke, with the second paragraph indentable by a "tab" stroke. Most can't.

All eight programs offer automatic word-wrap, which puts the last word in a line onto the line below if it doesn't fit within the margin; but a user also should be able to expect automatic readjustment when words are deleted or inserted. Text should be reformattable throughout the manuscript by one keystroke, rather than, as in MBA and Aura, ponderously paragraph by paragraph. To make full use of customized windows, margins should be changeable quickly on a "ruler," and those rulers should be able to be saved for future reference. Since ultimately a prime test of integration is how efficiently a system can create a printed document, the text processor should be able easily to accommodate inserts from the spreadsheet, database, and graphics sectors. Embellishments of the text itself, such as underscores and italics, ought to be exactly recreated on the screen in "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" fashion, rather than shoehorned in among the characters as computerized gibberish. Cursor movements should include commands for jumping by a word and by a sentence at a time. If a system does it backwards as well (again, Enable can), it shows that someone in charge is thinking more of the user's needs than the programmer's. Further, as in a spreadsheet, a large amount of text subject to being moved or deleted should be highlighted in reverse video. Some systems unsatisfactorily place a lone marker at the beginning and end of the block, or use bold type, which blends into other bold settings. Approaching stand-alone status, Integrated 7 is the only system so far to include a popular-spelling checker in its text processor. Undoubtedly, others will follow, but at a cost: Symphony offers an add-in spelling checker for another $139.

Many businesses would benefit from a mail-merge facility, in which a form letter can be constructed so that individual particulars can be inserted in each printed copy. For a business that can make use of it, one of the strongest features of any integrated package is one that allows the user automatically to tie mailed instruments directly into the system's databases. But you can't take that ability for granted: Only Symphony, Enable, Framework, and Integrated 7 can perform such database mailings.

Pictures Worth a Thousand Numbers

Only three systems -- Corporate MBA, Symphony, and Framework -- and display graphs on the screen at the same time as figures or text. But while MBA and Symphony require a special device called a grahics board, which costs several hundreds of dollars, Framework doesn't. Nor does Open Access, which, along with Framework, can display its graphs on certain text/graph monitors, such as the Corona Portable's. Open Access can't mix graphs with other elements, but, along with Framework and MBA, it is able to display four different types of graphs in four screen areas at once. And in one system -- Aura -- you can draw your own graphs by guiding the cursor from point to point on the screen. In graphics alone, these systems vary in the type of graphs they can produce, as well as the ability to insert stylized titles, reduce a graph's size to fit it into a printed document, redraw a graph automatically as its component data is updated, control the scale of an axis, add a text footnote, and on and on.

Manipulating the Data

All systems reviewed have adequate database-management elements, which can store bits of information about customers or products, for example, and retrieve data from them by screening for combinations of criteria (such as production-line employees younger than a certain age and hired after a certain date), like grading apples through a succession of meshes. But file capacity among the systems varies widely. A database file consists of a certain number of records that are in turn broken down into components, or fields. The number of records per file depends on whether a system manages its database from the disk drive or from within the computer's internal memory. A business with an extensive customer list should probably seek the former, although it is slower. In any event, most packages can import parts of data files from outside sources, and some can merge them within a database created in the system.

Also, for active business applications, a user should be able to custom design a database input form. As with an old-fashioned file card, there is a natural flow of information entry (for example, city, state, and zip code in one row) that columnar input forms can't accommodate. A system's programming language ought to be accessible enough -- such as those in Symphony, Framework, Smart, and Enable -- to allow you also to program your own menus and input prompts, permitting computer-illiterates on the office staff to follow the entry procedure by coaching from the screen. In many database management programs, you can limit the boundaries of the information that is entered, so that it is impossible to make large mistakes -- for example, if someone tried to enter a price for quantity discounts lower than the user-restricted amount, the system would reject it.

File Management

After a long and, of course, productive session, a system ought to be able to shut down safely. That means ensuring the flagging user that any efforts residing inside the computer's memory have been stored on a data disk. A simple "work saved" message would boost morale considerably. Otherwise you might return to your electronic desk under the possibly false assumption that you have fastidiously stored your efforts. All but Framework eschew this basic courtesy. (Because of the inherent danger of losing everything either through negligence, improper procedures, or acts of God, the wise user soon learns to protect work-in-progress by saving often.) Nor should any system allow you to exit a screen, or to place another file on top of the one on the screen, without first asking if it is OK to throw out what is there.

What Next?

Even after two years -- an age in computer time -- these integrated instruments fall far short of perfection. And that is too bad, given their promise. For if there were such a thing as the perfect package -- spreadsheet, database, text writing, graphics, communications, all wrapped in Little-Lamb-who-made-thee harmony -- you wouldn't need anything else to make money efficiently. But the promise raises big questions. It wasn't long ago that the course of many a business -- large as well as small -- was profitably steered from the back of an envelope. Can it be that technology has made us lazy, and that what used to be condensed on some crumpled napkin over coffee now has been given the luxury of rambling on through 640K of random access memory? The nature of commerce hasn't changed; only the nature of office equipment. Then how did business get on before the 2-million-square spreadsheet?

Haltingly, is the answer. Bespectacled clerks leaned over too-high desks under too-dim lights and made too many too many mistakes. But it didn't matter. In those days, if you were wrong by so much, your competitor was very likely to be off by that much as well. And anyway, the pace of growth was such that there was plenty of time to recover. In the old days, business gained competitive edge by guts and luck more than by brains and luck.

Today, however automation has been narrowing the permissible margin of fiscal error to the degree that any mistake is apt not only to be costly, but fatal. As CPAs give way to CPUs, recovery intervals get compressed. And now that microcomputers can perform tasks that only a decade back required a mainframe, specialized software has become the Great Equalizer, routinely, accurately, and instantly overseeing the ledgers of accounts, inventory, invoicing and credit, and even audits.

But, although a small business could adapt any one of these integrated packages to the same ends (indeed, special applications packages are becoming available that plug right into the integrated systems), the major contribution of these five-part inventions is as a modeling tool by which the competitive edge can be regained. With them, the bones of a business are bared, and complex strategies for future success can be devised, revised, composed, studied -- and presented to a banker for active endorsement.

Someday, even that process will be equalized, as the ability of computers to think and respond on their own becomes more profound. In that gold-in-the-streets era, every business will be able to make profits with the same effortless proficiency as the other. But until CPUs also replace CEOs, you can take comfort in the fallibility of these integrated programs.