Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lotus - the end of an era

The Great Lakes Geek is sad that the Lotus name has been removed from the Notes/Domino name and the Lotusphere conference.  It’s hard to believe that it was way back in 1995 that IBM bought Lotus, essentially for the Lotus Notes product line. 

I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of Lotus 1-2-3 to the PC industry.  Jonathan Sachs had written a couple electronic spreadsheets and he and Mitch Kapor created Lotus in 1982 and released Lotus 1-2-3 for the IBM PC in 1983.

Lotus 1-2-3 is the main reason that businesses bought PCs.  It made the IBM PC the world standard.  In fact, the common test for a clone PC to be IBM PC compatible was that it be able to run Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Flight Simulator (to test the graphics).  There was even a rumor that Microsoft would intentionally change DOS just enough to mess up 1-2-3.  The motto was 'DOS ain't done till Lotus won't run.’'

If you are old enough, you may recall the first time you set up a spreadsheet and then changed a field (maybe a tax rate from 10 to 12%) and recalculated and watched the values update.  What power! The Geek actually first witnessed this with VisiCalc on a TRS-80.   1-2-3 soon eclipsed VisiCalc and Microsoft’s Multiplan never did offer much competition. 

The product was called 1-2-3 because it had 3 functions: Spreadsheet, Charting/Graphing and Database.  Of course the database and graphing functions seem prehistoric when viewed against Access or Excel but it was a big deal back then.  And many people used 1-2-3 as their only app, including as a word processor.  They loaded 1-2-3 in the morning and stayed in it all day.  The familiar A1 row/column screen was burnt into many CRT monitors.

Lotus 1-2-3 did not have the burden of accommodating modern GUIs.  The first versions were written in x86 Assembler Language (V 3.0 switched to C) and they wrote directly to video memory rather than slower OS or BIOS output.  It was fast!

As companies relied on 1-2-3 more and more, they soon reached the 640K limits of the PC and the industry developed expanded memory to break the 640k barrier.  I spent a lot of time on Quarterdeck’s QEMM eking out some precious extra kb of memory.

Lotus 1-2-3 was the first killer app and dominated for a decade.  The beginning of the end came when Lotus lost the famous “look and feel” lawsuit against Borland and their Quattro Pro spreadsheet.  The port from Assembler to C took more time than expected and in the meantime Microsoft launched Excel for the Mac.  As Windows grew market share, Excel for Windows grew with it.

Lotus Symphony was the successor to 1-2-3 offering an integrated suite including a word processor.  Symphony and the Lotus SmartSuite never gained the dominance and market share of 1-2-3 despite being excellent products.  I still find the dragging of a completed task in Lotus Organizer to a trash can and seeing it burst into flames as the most satisfying of any PIM/calendar. (remember PIMs?)

The Lotus name was revived with their revolutionary groupware program Notes which incorporated network communication and sharing.  It’s a terrific product but more for the enterprise whereas 1-2-3 was on every desktop, consumer or business.

Many software companies of that era could be identified with the CEO or other key player: Philippe Khan at Borland, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Gordon Eubanks at Symantec and so on.  These, and many others, were supporters of user groups and spoke at the Association of PC User Groups (APCUG) annual meetings at Comdex in Las Vegas. 

While Lotus had a presence, and some terrific user group reps (I remember Elena Fernandez – who else?), I don’t recall visits from Mitch Kapor, Ray Ozzie, Jim Manzi or other Lotus bigwigs.  Maybe my APCUG pals will correct me on this.

Just as we will never have someone like Walter Cronkite being viewed by most Americans, we will never again see a program dominate like Lotus 1-2-3.   For a trip down memory lane, you can download (legally) and play with early spreadsheets such as VisiCalc from Dan Bricklin’s page. 

Looking forward to other “mature” Geeks comments.

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