These days it’s commonplace to learn about celebrity deaths from Twitter before hearing it on the actual ‘news’, but yesterday I read about another type of death on Facebook (from Phil Beresford-Davis). The death in question was not the demise of a person, but of a once much-loved product – Lotus 1-2-3 – as the support for Lotus SmartSuite was finally withdrawn.

Lotus 1-2-31-2-3 was an important part of my working life. I was a user and then, in 1991, I joined Lotus Development to support the product (and rose to the heady heights of Team Leader for Spreadsheet and Database Support). Joining Lotus was the start of a period of nearly twenty years working for Lotus and then IBM, which was a fairly significant chunk of my life.

To give you an idea of the computer landscape in 1991…

  • Windows 3.0 was available, but Windows 3.1 was still a few months away
  • 1-2-3 version 2.3 for DOS was the best-selling Lotus product
  • I was given e-mail for the first time, using Lotus Notes version 2.0a
  • The first PC I was allocated at Lotus had 4 MB of RAM… yes, 4 megabytes, I didn’t accidentally type an M instead of a G
  • If a customer required an updated driver or DLL we would have to copy it onto a 3.5” floppy disk and post it to them (someone did once ask if I could fax it to them)
  • Large spreadsheets were sometimes thwarted by not having enough expanded or extended memory
  • Large amounts of time were taken up by talking people through editing their autoexec.bat

So whatever happened to 1-2-3, the first killer application for the PC? Let’s look at the facts as I remember them:

  • Lotus were focused on creating versions of 1-2-3 for both Windows and OS/2, while also maintaining that HUGE installed base on DOS
  • Lotus were late in shipping a Windows version
  • … and the investment in OS/2 didn’t pay off
  • Oh, and there was 1-2-3 for Mac too
  • Meanwhile, Microsoft were focused on Excel for just Windows*
  • Microsoft had shipped a version of Excel prior to Windows 3 – before joining Lotus I’d seen it running on Windows 2 – so were already in the game
  • Microsoft then began pushing a complete suite in the form of Office –  a great non-nonsense does-what-it-says name (unlike SmartSuite)

And that was that. 1-2-3 and SmartSuite gradually lost their market share and became irrelevant. Eventually IBM effectively replaced SmartSuite with Symphony – not the ol’ DOS-based Symphony but a suite of editors based on Open Office.

The great shame in all of this is that in the move from DOS to Windows some great products met with their demise. Let’s remember some of the fallen:

  • Harvard Graphics – fond memories
  • Lotus Agenda – difficult to explain what Agenda did, but users were fanatics – there was no Windows version but Lotus said you should use Organizer instead (analogy: that’s like someone taking away your hedge trimmer and saying “here, have a shovel”)
  • WordPerfect – the beautiful simplicity that made the DOS version so great was replaced by a horrible complicated mess in Windows
  • Borland Paradox – rather like WordPerfect, this powerful and elegant database system became an utter mess in Windows – whenever I saw it demonstrated the Borland staff seemed to be way too interested in telling you that you could have a tropical fish as a background
  • dBASE IV – unlike some 80s and 90s pop bands we’re not expecting a comeback
  • Lotus Magellan – I could tell you a story about this, known to me and just a couple of other people as ‘Ivangate’
  • Sopwith – and we’ll end the list there

* Ironically, Excel (and indeed the other Office applications to various degrees) is now available for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android (in beta) and as a web application.

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