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Lotus 1-2-3 turns 30: Mitch Kapor on the Google before Google

Surviving tech's bubble, but not Microsoft

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Before Apple and Google turned computing into a webified, personalised and mobile experience, there was Microsoft. It was Microsoft that set the computing paradigm with a layer of software called Windows, which made computing personal, powerful and affordable when married with Intel chips. But before all of them, there was Lotus Development Corp, with its Lotus 1-2-3 software - so-called because it integrated three elements: spreadsheet, database and graphics. In many ways, the 30-year-old software package laid the foundations for the type of productivity app that's so ubiquitous in the modern computing experience and yet so important it has been thrown into the cloud by Google with Docs, Apple with iWorks and Microsoft with Office 365.

Lotus 1-2-3 went on sale 30 years ago on 26 January. It was a simple spreadsheet package that tapped a need among business people to quickly store and manipulate their numbers, to slice, dice and fiddle their data. The spreadsheet conquered business from Wall St to the UK high street as a tool to record results and chart projections.

1-2-3 wasn’t the first spreadsheet for the PC - that honour went to VisiCalc on the Apple II - but it was so successful that it transformed the PC from something for nerd hobbyists such as Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak to a tool for serious business users on a budget.

“It was a product that really legitimised the PC worldwide as a general business tool for non-technical users more than any other product... People were buying PCs to learn 1-2-3,” co-creator Mitch Kapor tells us in an interview on the 30th anniversary.

“It was as big as anything that’s big today,” said Kapor. “It was the Google or Facebook of its time. The market size was orders of magnitude smaller but the magnitude was the same.”

1-2-3 sold so fast it blew apart Kapor’s first-year sales projections by $50m, selling at $495 a copy, and helping persuade Kapor to take his year-old Lotus Development Corporation (LDC) public the same year – LDC was formed in 1982. For comparison purposes, just two years later Bill Gates was selling Windows 1.0 for $1 a copy. Gates IPO'd Microsoft 11 years after it was founded, in 1986.

'It was as big as anything that’s big today... it was the Google or Facebook of its time. The market size was orders of magnitude smaller but the magnitude was the same' - Lotus 1-2-3 designer Mitch Kapor

Yet, it’s Excel from Microsoft – not 1-2-3 – that’s king of the numbers three decades on. What's the story?

Circumstance favored 1-2-3 in the early 1980s. Advances in processors, memory, interface, engineering and materials combined with a coming together of geeks, engineers and entrepreneurs around that time saw the construction of the first PCs. Motivated by idealism or profit, people delivered systems that meant you no longer needed the budget of a big corporation or a small country to buy a computer and run it.

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston created Software Arts and built VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, in 1979 for Wozniak’s Apple II. But VisiCalc faced two problems: firstly, the Apple II was too pricey for business – selling at up to $2,638 for a system with 48K of RAM – and relatively weak on memory. Secondly, a new machine had appeared offering greater memory: IBM’s 5150 PC. The 5150 appeared in 1981 and initially came with up to 64Kb of RAM, but Bricklin and Frankston were too busy fighting Personal Software on VisiCalc to develop the application so that it could take properly advantage of the IBM machine’s power.

Enter Kapor, who’d been a product manager for VisiCalc on the Atari at Personal Software and who became the designer for 1-2-3. He worked with Jonathan Sachs who worked on architecture and coding. They created Lotus Development Corp in 1982.

“They [Bricklin and Frankston] had a very weak entrant for that machine that didn’t take advantage of the IBM PC... people wanted to build large spreadsheets and they couldn’t," Kapor says. "The VisiCalc for PC was hard to use. I said: ‘Let’s build something that really takes advantage of these capabilities’.”

What Kapor and Sachs delivered was a powerhouse that packed elegance with ease-of-use. And they managed that not on Windows but on PC-DOS.

“I felt the key to unlocking the market was making something ordinary people could use. It had to be better than single-letter commands,” Kapor tells The Reg. “We spent lot of time on how to work efficiently, so we had slash commands with the keyboards so people quickly developed muscle memory.”

1-2-3 packed more commands than the competition - it automated tedious charting, detailed spreadsheet manipulation and allowed you to calculate formulae using rows and columns instead of just row and column order.

And, unlike the rivals, 1-2-3 wasn’t hard to understand or difficult to use. There were jargon-free prompts, explanatory messages, and fail-safe mechanisms in case of mistakes. 1-2-3 was the first program to make full use of the IBM keyboard enabling commands via the F and slash keys. 1-2-3 packed a tutorial package and context-sensitive help – all features that had one reviewer enthusing about 1-2-3’s attention on “human engineering.”

It packed in so much that 1-2-3 exceeded the 5150’s memory, soaking up 256Kb and making it possibly the first case of the software pushing the hardware.

Kapor in 1982 had forecast first-year sales for 1-2-3 of $3 to $4m based on the performance of Personal Software, which had made $12m annually and had shipped 300,000 copies of VisiCalc. 1-2-3 made $53m in year one, selling at $495 per a copy on a PC bundle of the day that was priced $5,000 - which included a printer and monitor. “We had no idea - nobody had put out software like that before,” Kapor said of his sales estimates.

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