Over the weekend, I started seeing a variety of tweets and Google Alerts about an important milestone: January 26, 2013 is the 30th anniversary of the release of Lotus 1-2-3. The head of the project, Mitch Kapor, was interviewed by The Register
There is much to learn from 1-2-3. Many newcomers to the world of using personal computers in business, unfortunately, don't know much about it. While VisiCalc gets to be in the history books for being the first of its genre, only the currently most popular are being taught (Microsoft Excel and Google Docs, I assume). (See my blog post from February 5, 2001
, about VisiCalc being an easy question on the TV game show Jeopardy. See "VisiCalc
" on my main web site for more about the program.)
Geoffrey Moore wrote about the "Tornado" -- the time period where the mainstream market adopts new stuff. Lotus 1-2-3 is the poster child for the winner at this time for the initial adoption of personal computers in business. It both rode the tidal wave and helped push it along.
When Mitch first showed me 1-2-3 privately before it was announced, I was blown away. Wow, what a great product! I thought to myself: "This will sell $60 million the first year." Lotus was apparently only predicting $5 million, but the actual ended up a bit over $50 million -- on par with Microsoft. That was just the start of its growth.
There were many spreadsheet programs on the market when Lotus 1-2-3 came out, including VisiCalc, SuperCalc, Microsoft's Multiplan, and Context MBA. Mitch compared 1-2-3 in the demo he showed me to Context MBA. Context MBA was programmed in a slow, high-level, byte-coded language, as I recall, while 1-2-3 was in assembler for the IBM PC. He told me that Lotus tried to meet similar goals to what we had originally targeted with VisiCalc, such as keeping up with fast horizontal and vertical scrolling. It felt at least as good with big sheets and the full screen of the IBM PC as the original VisiCalc felt on small sheets on an Apple II with much fewer characters on the screen. Context MBA felt like molasses in comparison. Both had lots of features (which is why he compared the two instead of using the lesser-featured MultiPlan or SuperCalc).
One major thing about 1-2-3 was that the implementation and design choices were very pragmatic
. It used what was good from before, such as lots of features from VisiCalc, but changed things for the better where it was most helpful. For example, it had VisiCalc's "A1, B1, C1" row/column naming, unlike the techie "R1C1" and the like of Multiplan, but it added optional "$" characters in the cell coordinates instead of the manual "relative or absolute" of VisiCalc. It took advantage of the new hardware, making great use of the IBM PC's keyboard, even coming with a molded template to label the function keys. It used the extra memory and the knowledge that there could be two disks to provide much better command prompts and a real context sensitive help system. It addressed the core complaints about VisiCalc (lack of thousands separators in numbers and lack of individually settable column widths) and much more. It was written in tight assembly code, accepting the limitation of making porting to other computers more difficult (it couldn't run on Apple's 6502-based computers or many others) to get the speed needed on the soon-to-be-dominant IBM PC (which it helped make dominant). (Context MBA and Multiplan were not written in assembly language for one machine -- they followed the "write once run everywhere" higher-level language technique that seemed appropriate when you wanted to provide products for the myriad different computers of the day.) 1-2-3 included built-in graphing and simple list management -- two major uses of spreadsheet data.
While VisiCalc concentrated on just being able to do spreadsheets at all, Lotus 1-2-3 went to the next level and addressed the final printed output much better, with more number formats, variable column widths, long labels, and that very-hard-to-do-by-hand graphing. And it did all of this with greater speed than anything else. Speed and fluid operations matters, as the Palm Pilot later showed (with its instant page turning in response to taps), and then the Apple iOS products showed after that.
The code itself stood the test of time and for years beat out most other products running on the hardware for which it was designed. It wasn't until a platform switch occurred (GUI) that the torch was passed to the next dominant spreadsheet, Excel.
The team Mitch assembled to get the "full" product (including documentation, sales, etc.) out the door had some of the best positioned and most experienced (with personal computing) people in the world. He also worked with one of the most tied-in to the personal computing business venture capitalist, Ben Rosen. A dream team at the time and in hindsight.
To help give you some feel for the excitement after the launch
, I have two videos
that you might want to look at. The first is a promotional video that Lotus showed to dealers at conferences (and shown a bit in Part 1
of the Fall Comdex 1983 video
that I posted last year). Produced just two years after MTV started, it's in the style of a music video. It shows how excited an office gets when they can move from the "floppy shuffle" of the old products (like, clearly, VisiCalc and its co-products) to the integrated spreadsheet, graphing, and "database" of 1-2-3.
The video is "Lotus 1-2-3 Rocks
" and is embedded here:
[Embedded video in original post
on Dan Bricklin's Log
The second video is one shot by Adam Jackson showing Mitch Kapor presenting at Startup School 2009. He shares another Lotus promotional video that covers the first 5 years of the company -- watch especially the beginning and compare it to today's Facebook, etc. Lotus, founded in 1982, went public on October 6, 1983, less than a year after shipping 1-2-3. That made the evening national news, as you'll see. Watch Mitch at Startup School 2009
Getting personal computers onto the desks of office workers everywhere was a very important step in the history of computing. Lotus was a major factor in taking this step. Their later product, Notes, I believe helped get "wired" computers onto those desks and hastened the adoption of web browsers for many reasons (it's a lot easier to get people to try new software and services when they already have the expensive hardware and it's wired and ready to go). While the old Lotus is not around in its old form, its employees have gone on to help create other great things in the computer industry. Mitch has continued his role as an industry statesman, and I hope is enjoying this anniversary.
People frequently ask me how I feel about 1-2-3 overtaking my product VisiCalc. While it always feels bad to lose your position as a leader, and not get to participate as much in the benefits that come with that position, I'm really happy that at least it was 1-2-3 that took the mantle from VisiCalc. Mitch and Jonathan Sachs were our friends and they made their product a follow-on (it could read VisiCalc files, so you could move your spreadsheets from VisiCalc to 1-2-3 to Excel to Google Docs without retyping) keeping a lot of the "DNA" of our ideas. Lotus improved on the design of the electronic spreadsheet, so it stayed a major productivity tool. Mitch kept his company here in Massachusetts (Mitch had moved back from Silicon Valley to found it). And our product is still the first in the line and is not forgotten. As a child of the 1950's and 1960's, to know that you made something that changed the world, and that it lives on in products that acknowledge your starting point, is something most people could only dream about and for which I will be forever grateful. The launch of Lotus 1-2-3 helped make that happen and brought personal computing to a large part of business in the process. Happy 30th!