The Register reports that IBM, the current owners of the Lotus 123 spreadsheet, have finally ceased support of the venerable software package. The report prompted a lot of reminiscing, and it made me realise again how fortunate I am to have lived through those formative years of the personal computer revolution.
Lotus 123 was the software successor to the original spreadsheet, Visicalc. The reason why Visicalc is now almost forgotten is that it was developed for the Apple II computer, along with the Atari and various others, trying to support the myriad of differing systems that typified the late 70s and early 80s affordable personal computers. But it was IBM's choice of relatively open hardware along with the Disk Operating System that they bought from a small company called MicroSoft (sic) that opened the way for a standard hardware and software platform. Lotus 123 was written for the IBM PC and PC-DOS, which morphed into IBM-PC compatible machines running MS-DOS, opening a huge market that earlier proprietary systems could not tackle. Hardware was still expensive, though, so early users were typically accountants and business people, mostly concerned about financial systems. Lotus Development rode high at that time, providing beancounters with exactly the tools they needed, even if, by today's standards, the software was horribly limited.
Part of the limitation was of course the PC-XT architecture and the 8088/8086 processor from Intel, along with the various clones such as the V20. These systems had incredibly limited memory by today's standards - just 640Kb, into which the operating system and the running program (it could only run one program at a time) had to be shoehorned. Part of a techie's skills at that time was paring down memory use, especially the memory DOS used, when every byte was important.
Lotus 123 became accountants' world. I eventually stopped being amazed at finding accountants writing letters using their spreadsheet software in preference to word processing software, just because they were so familiar with it. They used rows as new lines and set the column width (printers were mostly fixed-width fonts then) to ensure the lines didn't over-run. What is more, these letters invariably were all done in capitals, as accountants simply left the CAPS LOCK key enabled, for reasons which I never could understand.
I worked at one place in the mid 1980s where an important spreadsheet could not be accessed because no-one could remember the encryption password. The accountant was sure the password she remembered was correct. A year or so later, an idea struck me. I enabled CAPS-LOCK. then tried the password, and it worked. Enabling CAPS LOCK turned an intentional upper case to a lower case, so if the password should have been "PassWord" it was actually "pASSwORD".
It was also not possible to print in landscape in those days. You had to buy an add-on to Lotus that allowed landscape printing. This only supported certain printers, too, as a time when every software package had to have its own suite of printer drivers. Epson printers ruled the roost in those days, and an Epson compatible printer setting was most reliable, using the ESC-P printer description language. I could write many of those codes from memory at that time, it was such an important skill.
Of course, the success of Lotus 123 inspired many alternatives. Many sought to use the key strokes used by Lotus, such as "/" to bring up the menu. A "shareware" version was one of the best such clones. It was called "As Easy As" so that you would understand "123" came next. This clone was tightly coded, and used even less memory than Lotus, even it's best product, version 2.1. What was more, you did not have to buy the landscape printing add-on, as it could do landscape itself. It could read and write Lotus files too. But accountants, a traditionally conservative lot, would not even look at it. It wasn't the real 123. Borland came up with Quattro, a viciously fast alternative, but again, it was largely ignored. Microsoft came up with Multiplan, but that hardly got a look in.
Then, around 1990 or 1991, if memory serves, Lotus Development re-wrote Lotus 123 in C rather than assembler, making it more graphical in the process. The result was a disaster. It was much slower than good old 2.1, and used far more memory. We even started stockpiling copies of 2.1 so that we could continue to run it. Lotus Development was one of the richest software companies on the planet, but the writing was beginning to appear on the wall.
We knew that Microsoft was coming out with a version of a graphical interface which was likely to make things easier for users, by standardising operation, and for support people, by making things like printing part of the operating environment, rather than part of every separate application. What was more, a graphical environment would allow you to have more than one thing on the screen at the same time, making it appear to be multi-tasking. To me, in charge of the PC systems at the company for which I worked, and my boss, in overall charge of IT, the release of Windows 3 seemed like the future. It was a costly and challenging move, as it meant running DOS under Windows, and needed an expensive mouse, as well as good memory management.
So we set up meetings with Lotus Development as well as Microsoft, at a time when mere smallish companies really could meet with these software giants as valued customers, to see how they saw the future. Lotus was betting to some extent on IBM's new system that would make use of the 80286 chip from Intel, OS/2. They would probably release 123 under Windows, but it was not a priority and anyway, you could run the DOS version under Windows, even though that would result in worse memory problems. They weren't happy with the idea of having to use standardised keystrokes for menu access either, as they felt their customers were comfortable with the esoteric menu access with which they were familiar. Microsoft, on the other hand, were honest and upbeat. They knew Lotus 123 was king, but, they said, they also knew that they would have to come out with something spectacular on their new Windows platform to challenge it. They would develop their also-ran MS-Word system, which was competing against Wordperfect and Multimate, but was nowhere near those two in popularity. And they would develop Excel to challenge 123. All in all, they set out a clear vision which was pretty much how my boss and I saw the future developing. We decided to change our strategic PC approach to move to Microsoft. We were not IBM mainframe users, so any attraction of OS/2, in many ways far superior to Windows, was limited, and we did not see IBM approaching the PC world as anything but an adjunct to their mainframe business.
I recall it was a long, had slog to get the accountants off of Lotus 123. Lotus eventually saw how the future was panning out, and realised that it had missed the boat in trying to control the future of personal computing. They bought as many software companies as they could to try to buy a coherent suite of software, including a fantastic personal information manager from a British company, called Organiser. But it was too little too late.
Lotus eventually got swallowed by IBM, which gamely tried to continue the suite Lotus had gathered together, Word Pro as a word processor, Freelance for presentation graphics, Approach for a database and Organiser for personal information management. They also had the Notes email and application development platform by that time. Each of those products was in many ways technically superior to the Microsoft equivalent, but just did not have the sense of coherence or the vision which was so necessary at that time.
IBM eventually realised that the Free Software world was one worth supporting, and threw their weight behind the open source OpenOffice suite, which left the Lotus products with nowhere to go. Interestingly, Microsoft is now at this point of digression. The world had latched onto the joys of Free and Open Source software, and LibreOffice, the free and open source office suite, is excellent and compatible, but the conservative business world is staying with the systems it knows. These days, Excel is synonymous with spreadsheet. But the next wave is already overtaking Microsoft who, like Lotus before them, seem dazzled by their own brightness.
So long Lotus 123. It was good knowing you.