Adiós Lotus 1-2-3

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demise of a person, but of a once much-loved product – Lotus 1-2-3 – as the support for Lotus SmartSuite was finally withdrawn.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.


  1. Man, I loved Lotus 123. I started with the DOS version in 1989, moved to the OS/2 version, and eventually graduated to the native Windows version ( 123W ?? ). Around the same time, I was learning to get used to Windows 2/3/3.11, as well as Gem, OS/2 and …. Interleaf Publisher.

    Mind you, I had been using Samna Ami back in 1988, which, I’m guessing, was the precursor to Lotus Ami Pro ? That, plus Wordstar and Word Perfect, formed the first geeky section of my life ( post BBC Micro, of course ).

    Anyway, so long, 123, it’s been too long since I used you ( I’m now into Symphony > Open Office on the Mac ).

    Mind you, I’m also installing a Windows 2008 R2 server …. via VMware on SuSE Linux, whilst I type this post on … the Mac.

    Confused ? I ought to be …..

    Cheers, Darren, too long no see 🙁

    1. Dave, my friend, I miss you.

      Samna Ami was the precursor to Ami Pro, which then turned into Word Pro as part of SmartSuite, and for a long time that was THE best word processor for Windows. The InfoBox (that floating settings palette) really worked well and the style management was absolutely spot-on.

  2. Darren,

    Your timeline and narrative are a bit off. Microsoft Excel shipped on the Mac first in 1985. New releases came out every couple of years. Lotus’ first release of 123 for Windows (Rockport) shipped in 92. It was a quick port of the DOS version and was a weak offering compared to Excel.


    P.S. I started at Lotus in February 1990 to work on Lotus Improv for NeXT, and Windows and then… cancelled (in 1994). The InfoBox originated with Improv inspired by the floating inspector windows we had on NeXT.

    1. One more thing, I was going to mention Improv, but this was more about 1-2-3 and the death of the DOS products. I saw the specs and designs for Improv 2 for Windows, and was disappointed when it was canned. And indeed, that’s where the InfoBox started.

  3. Oh yeah Darren, I so LOVED WordPro for writing manuals and longer documents, the Tabbed interface enabled easy access to any chapter or section, and the InfoBox was awesome in immediately applying formatting changes while also viewing the results without the cumbersome “Format-> Choose-An-Option -> Dialog -> OK” feature of equivalent products. Not to mention that it was so stable when dealing with large files that I never had a corruption, which was my major reason for ditching the competition as my preferred editor.

    As a co-user, it was so sad to see the slow demise of these awesome products due to the history you so eloquently write about here.

    Thanks for sharing mate. (hug)

  4. Ah, I’d forgotten Improv. I know we experimented with that for a while, as I was the chap who ordered all the software and hardware for my company, and got to unbox all the shiny new stuff 🙂

  5. Improv 3.0 was about to go out as a Beta when the project was cancelled in August 1994. Lotus didn’t know how to deal with having two spreadsheets in the market. There was talk of a third-party buying the code but that never went anywhere. Some of the Improv computation code was reused by the Domino Health Monitoring tool.

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