Lotus 1-2-3 rebooted: My trip back to the old (named) range

Not too 'hard to understand or inconvenient to use'

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

Analysis Lotus 1-2-3, released on 26 January 1983, was not the first spreadsheet. That achievement belongs to VisiCalc, invented by Dan Bricklin at Harvard, programmed mainly by Bob Frankston, and released for - surprise - the Apple II in 1979.

But as I fired up 1-2-3 on its 30th anniversary, I was reminded that while it wasn't an original, it was a game-changer.

Electronic graph paper that could perform calculations automatically was a huge productivity win and an idea that was easy to grasp, and 1-2-3's predecessor VisiCalc was not only a success in its own right, but also a catalyst for personal computer sales.

The spreadsheet was so valuable that customers would go into a shop to buy VisiCalc and whatever it took to run it. Initially that meant an Apple II, but the software was soon ported to other systems such as the Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore PET.

Bricklin and Frankston initially formed a company called Software Arts to commercialise the software. But VisiCalc was also marketed by another company with which Software Arts signed an agreement. This was Personal Software, run by Dan Fylstra. VisiCalc was so successful that Personal Software was renamed VisiCorp in 1982. Two of its other products were VisiTrend and VisiPlot, which covered statistics and business charting. These were written by Mitch Kapor, who worked at VisiCorp but owned personal rights to his software. VisiCorp bought out those rights for $1.7m, giving Kapor the resources to start his own company, Lotus Development Corp (LDC).

Kapor worked with programmer Jonathan Sachs to make a spreadsheet with charting built-in. It was called 1-2-3 to reflect its ability in numbers, graphics, and database management. The database aspect was rudimentary, but you could sort, query and extract records from a table, so the claim was justified.

Byte magazine praised not only its speed and capability, but also its usability. Senior editor Gregg Williams enthused: “To date, computers have been hard to understand and inconvenient to use, which has discouraged many people from using them. 1-2-3 is one of the few pieces of software that can literally be used by anybody. You can buy 1-2-3 and an IBM Personal Computer and be using the two together the same day.”

With some effort (and please do not ask for the details), Lotus 1-2-3 can be persuaded to work under DOSBox and presumably other DOS virtual machines. I loaded it to take a look, getting all of 20 rows and 9 columns to view. Of course this is merely a window on a huge sheet with 2048 rows and 256 columns. OK, small by today’s standards, but big enough to do useful work.

Lotus 1-2-3 - Release 1

Operating the first release of 1-2-3 is not unpleasant. Old software like this has a good sort of simplicity. Single-tasking DOS has the advantage that you are focused only on the current application, something that Microsoft is trying to recover in the Windows 8 “immersive” user interface. Type a forward slash and all the available menus show up – so easy.

Text starts with a single quote, numeric values with a plus, and formulas with an @ character. This list of “@ Functions” is tiny in comparison with what was to come, but covers a useful range of financial, mathematical and statistical functions. Function keys are also important in 1-2-3. F1 is for help and is rather good. F2 to edit a cell, F5 to goto an address, and so on.

After a few minutes of familiarisation old habits return (for those who remember this kind of application) and I was able to start entering and manipulating data. Sadly I could not persuade the currency format to display anything other than the dollar symbol, but no doubt there is a way.

One of the innovations in 1-2-3 was named ranges, making complex functions easier to read and write. 1-2-3 Release 1 also supports keystroke macros read from a spreadsheet, and you can define up to 26, one for each letter of the alphabet. The X commands, only available in macros, allow you to write programs with branches, subroutines, and conditional logic. Add in the charting and database features and you can see why 1-2-3 was so successful.

Lotus 1-2-3 soon beat off its competitors, not only VisiCalc, but also Microsoft’s Multiplan and Computer Associates’ SuperCalc. Two years later, in 1985, Lotus acquired Software Arts. For the next few years, Lotus 1-2-3 dominated the spreadsheet market. Release 2 appeared in 1985, and Release 3 in 1989.

One size doesn't fit all

What went wrong for Lotus 1-2-3? It was not just Microsoft Windows. Rather than merely refining the spreadsheet, Kapor invested in integrated software, Jazz for the Mac and Symphony for DOS. But the market preferred best-of-breed individual applications rather than a single application that could do everything.

When Kapor pushed out Jazz for the Mac (which had many issues - chief among them speed problems and being overpriced at $595) rather than 1-2-3, it gave Microsoft's Excel an advantage on Apple's platform. Excel for the Macintosh was released in 1985, and Excel for Windows in 1987. At this point though, Windows was not a complete operating system, and Lotus Release 3 in 1989 was enough to keep LDC on top.

1-2-3, Release 5.

Microsoft released Windows 3.0 in 1990. The PC environment was becoming a Windows environment, but Lotus was late in making the transition. Release One for Windows appeared in 1991, but Excel now had the advantage. Users complained that the Windows 1-2-3 was merely a less reliable version of Release 3 for DOS, rather than taking full advantage of the graphical environment. Later Lotus bundled 1-2-3 into a suite with word processor Ami Pro and Freelance presentation graphics as a competitor to Microsoft Office, but despite some success, sales were far short of Microsoft’s suite.

Nevertheless, Lotus 1-2-3 is remembered with fondness by users. “My use of Lotus 1-2-3 was in the late '80s (version 2 and 3, I think),” says software developer Stuart Clennett. “Those early versions were great, the menu accessible via the "/" key and ranges could be created using keystrokes like "/RNC" (range > name > create). I really miss those productive days.” ®

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

More from The Register

next story
This time it's 'Personal': new Office 365 sub covers just two devices
Redmond also brings Office into Google's back yard
Oh no, Joe: WinPhone users already griping over 8.1 mega-update
Hang on. Which bit of Developer Preview don't you understand?
Microsoft lobs pre-release Windows Phone 8.1 at devs who dare
App makers can load it before anyone else, but if they do they're stuck with it
Half of Twitter's 'active users' are SILENT STALKERS
Nearly 50% have NEVER tweeted a word
Internet-of-stuff startup dumps NoSQL for ... SQL?
NoSQL taste great at first but lacks proper nutrients, says startup cloud whiz
Ditch the sync, paddle in the Streem: Upstart offers syncless sharing
Upload, delete and carry on sharing afterwards?
New Facebook phone app allows you to stalk your mates
Nearby Friends feature goes live in a few weeks
Microsoft TIER SMEAR changes app prices whether devs ask or not
Some go up, some go down, Redmond goes silent
Batten down the hatches, Ubuntu 14.04 LTS due in TWO DAYS
Admins dab straining server brows in advance of Trusty Tahr's long-term support landing
prev story


SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.