Component-based diagramming software to automate the planning process

Every now and then, products cross my desk that are a joy to use. These products stand out from the rest because of the care the programmers put into the development process. You know the type of product I'm talking about--the program that is so well designed that you actually enjoy working with it. The latest version of Visio Professional falls into that prestigious category.

Visio Professional 4.5 is component-based visualization software for diagramming databases and networks, and has something for everyone. Although the software is a monolithic application, it uses object-based technologies to simplify diagramming. Whether your primary job function is to deploy intranet or Internet sites, monitor networks, or plan projects, you'll find appropriate templates in this package.

From the start, I knew that Visio actively sought user feedback to improve its flagship product. Going against the trend of hypertext over pulp, Visio Professional ships with two comprehensive manuals and a thinner installation guide. This approach may be less environmentally friendly, but I'll take a good hardcopy manual over an electronic Help file any day.

Disk-space conscious users will appreciate Visio Professional's installation options. You can choose a full installation that takes up approximately 55MB or a minimal installation that runs most of the code directly from the CD-ROM. However, be aware that Visio Professional is a large application that pushes a lot of data through the pipe, so you need a sufficiently speedy CD-ROM drive if you opt for the minimal installation.

Being Office 97 compatible, Visio Professional looks and feels like a member of the Office 97 family, right down to the flat 2D icons that inflate into 3D icons as the mouse cursor rolls over them. The software adds a Visio Professional icon to Office 97 applications. This icon simplifies embedding diagrams in Office 97 documents. For the first time, Visual Basic Applications Edition (VBA) is fully integrated in Visio Professional; now you can create custom solutions using a macro language that you already know.

Speaking of the user interface: Visio Professional is wonderfully multithreaded--each process spins off its own thread, letting you work while the program is redrawing complex diagrams. For example, I sent Visio Professional off to scan the Windows NT Magazine Web site to create a Web site model template (as shown in Screen 1) while I built an elaborate and infallible flowchart to Get Rich Quick. The Web Diagram Wizard worked quietly in the background, leaving the main user interface accessible and, most important, responsive.

To simplify the tedious task of diagramming, the program includes a large number of predefined shapes, known as stencils. You can choose from more than 2000 shapes (over half of which are new in this version of Visio Professional) to put into your diagrams. Pulling your diagram together is a matter of selecting the shapes you want and dragging them from the shapes toolbox to the diagram frame. The shapes cover almost everything you will use the program for, including network shapes right down to the manufacturer name.

However, all the templates are not complete. The user interface (UI) template lets you create a mock UI for your applications; unfortunately you can't import the finished creation into Visual Basic or Visual C++. Similarly, the Web Diagram Wizard is indispensable for creating an outline of your Web sites, but it doesn't support frames.

Visio Professional is an indispensable tool to automate the planning process. Version 4.5 combines powerful diagramming features with ease-of-use, resulting in a program that's functionally rich and a pleasure to use. Visio bills its product as "The Smartest Way to Design and Document Your Information Systems and Business Processes," but forgot to include "The Easiest to Use."