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

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 …


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  1. Efros


    Quattro Pro, its transition to windows was appalling though. Ended up using 1-2-3 more by default than choice.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Preferred

      But even so 1-2-3 was always better than Excel. Excel's appalling inability to detect (for example) a formula, requires you to type = before every one. Over the product's life, this single act of laziness by the coders must have waste thousands of accumulated lifetimes. And Excel's functions, and charting whilst hugely capable, display a mastery of user-unfriendliness rarely seen in apps these days.

      I have to use Excel because the company, and the rest of the world do, but I hate it with a passion.

      1. JimC

        Re: Preferred

        Oh I dunno. Don't forget 123 for Windows was appalling. Excel made a far better job of implementing the spreadsheet under Windows. And then although Word for Windows was pretty ropey, no-one has ever really done a decent Windows word processor. And as soon as Windows 3 came out and you no longer had the support hell of separate printer drivers for every product the DOs packages were doomed.

        But the genius stroke was Office. Bundling the excellent Excel and the adequate Word together with the frankly dreadful Powerpoint for the price of just Excel and Word meant that there was only one purchasing decsion to make and a competitor had to succeed with three products, not just one. And no-one ever succeeded in shipping three decent products in a way that was compelling for purchasers.

        1. Joe Drunk

          Re: Preferred

          Back in the WIndows 3.0/3.1 era I made the transition from 1-2-3 to Excel once I learned the minor differences. I didn't take to Word for Windows and used Ami Pro instead because it had a feature new to word processing / desktop publishing and not yet present in Word for Windows - WYSIWYG editing. You had to print preview if you wanted to see layout/formatting in Word. Lack of WYSIWYG editing is another reason why I couldn't stand Wordperfect despite it being the DOS word processing standard, opting for Q&A 2.0 instead.

        2. Daniel B.

          Re: Preferred @JimC

          The reason Excel did a better job on implementing spreadsheets on Windows was because Excel was born on the Macintosh instead of DOS. MS decided to ditch their Multiplan spreadsheet and start from zero with Excel on the Mac. That gave 'em the GUI looks that they could then use on Windows, while the rest of the spreadsheets had to transition from DOS to Windows. A lot of programs that made this transition were usually horrible as the devs would still embrace the DOS conventions instead of taking advantage of the new GUI features. An example: remember who created the ZIP file format? PKZIP. Which program is mostly used for opening/creating such files? WinZip. They aren't made from the same company: PKZIP for Windows sucked, so the competing WinZip took over the market.

          I can't quite vouch for 1-2-3, as I mostly used the DOS version but didn't migrate to Windows. But I wouldn't be surprised it if were the same case....

          1. Epobirs

            Re: Preferred @JimC

            Lotus had a horrible time trying to wrap their heads around GUI. When the original 128K Mac launched they announced an integrated all-dancing all-singing package called Jazz that nearly wrecked the company. They poured huge resources into trying to do something truly new on a platform that simply couldn't support it. The 128K Mac simply wasn't a practical product for anything beyond short Mac Write docs and showing the potential of what GUI could become. It wasn't until the 512K model and upgrades appeared that anyone sane would try to run their business on a Mac. By then Lotus had already gone last past deadline learning how memory hungry a GUI environment is compared to something like DOS. Even character mapped pseudo-GUIs needed a lot more memory to deal with all of the needed buffering.

            By the time most machines had adequate resources, too many of Lotus' developers had been reduced to mere shells of men, and the company never really got its footing in the GUI world, except for acquired crews like the Ami folks.

        3. Epobirs

          Actually, Lotus did.

          Lotus Word Pro was descended from Samna's Ami, the first full function Windows word processor. It was out a year before the first Windows version of Word. I first used it as Lotus Ami Pro on Win3.x, on a NEC laptop. Lotus had a very competent set of office apps but by that point couldn't sell eternal youth. IBM bought them almost entirely for Notes. Microsoft even gave one of its Windows Pioneer Awards to the main coder of Ami Pro, not just for the product but also for the excellent feedback he gave the Windows dev team.

          My sister still loves Lotus Word Pro with a bizarre passion and goes to great lengths to keep using it. She was a typesetter in her earlier life and something about LWP resonates with her special form of brain damage.

        4. Nick Roberts

          Re: Preferred

          JimC, that's absolutely spot on on all counts. I still have the muscle memory of 123, but 123 for Windows was an incredibly buggy, flaky bit of software. At the time, we used 123, DisplayWrite and dBase IV, and I can't remember what for presentations - with the switch to Windows, MS Office made absolute sense as it was less buggy than any of these, and more usable than the appalling DisplayWrite

      2. Don Jefe

        Re: Preferred

        Is the = hard for you to reach or something? Are you missing some fingers? Oh I know, you simply don't know how to type. Wacko.

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: Preferred

          >Is the = hard for you to reach or something? Are you missing some fingers? Oh I know, you simply don't know how to type. Wacko.

          Do you still use a browser that insists you type 'www' in the address bar? : D

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Preferred

            I've used 123 and Excel and I have to admit that Excel was more logical to use for my brain. Typing in = is not a major problem and there are obvious reasons for doing it that way. It's pointless and like arguing if French or German is a better language; they are just different, and that's that.

          2. gujiguju

            Re: Preferred

            Good's that kind lame thinking that wasted billions of user-years since 1990.

            Speaking of which, I discovered Opera for browsing back around 2001. I've haven't typed "www" or ".com" for over a decade... ;)

      3. dssf

        Re: Preferred The ONLY think I think I like about excel is...

        The ability to edit the values in a cell simply by dragging a control point on a line chart. No other spreadsheet app I have used can do that. I wish 1-2-3 could do that.

        I still use 1-2-3 as well. I also make heavvvvy use of Lotus Approach. I wish that Mitch Kapoor and Sue Sloan would team up and just take Approach off of IBMs hands, or cajole IBM into allowing them to fork it. If they could pull that off, and if Mitch still has any "startup mode" fire in him, I'd begggggggggggg him to do it. I have a screenplay app that I started building in 2006 and I am terrified to open it up to the public because it does a number of things that NONE of the other screenplay apps does. I would only trust opening that up to Julian Smart (of Anthemion Software, the writer developer of StoryLines, along with his wife Harriet), Sue Sloan, and Mitch. Too bad they are too busy, or I am a poor presenter, or have poor posting history and the like. If I knew how to program, or could win a lottery, I could just pay someone to mimic Approach and some of 1-2-3, then totally re-write my screenplay app and spin it out as OS-agnostic, Linux-Mac-Win friendly, no registry bullshit, but only proper app-and-user-folder-activation constraints with a distinc activation code based on installation hash results and user/licensee name (so the user could install it on multiple machines owned by him/her).

        I am debating opening up my app this year, but I don't want to do it half-assed. The only way to non-half-ass it is if I had help from people such as the three I named, especially since if Approach were forked and made Linux-native, the existing and new users would all benefit from all the reasons Approach won awards in the 90s. The user forums (aside from bugs and workarounds) would still be highly useful to old and new users. And, a new and improved Approach, maybe borrowing bits of 1-2-3, would be like some of the earlier attempts of Lotus Symphony of the old days, where it was experimenting with what I called a spreadbase or datasheet -- except that such an endeavor would benefit from today's experience. (Would be nice for me if I could write wxWidgets...)

        1-2-3 and Approach combined, however, make a very powerful database app, but asking users to install all of SmartSuite, or 1-2-3 and Approach would be too much, so, some things 1-2-3 would have offered had to be left out, and since I don't do Lotus Script, my Approach-based apps are all 100% Approach, but non-portable, no standalone executable, and so on.

        Actually, around 2006, I think I wrote Mitch Kapoor, but without reviewing the email I cannot recall what, if any, response I got. I wrote Julian Smart, but, understandably, he was reluctant, as it is sometimes easy to be burned in collaborating with others, and he did not want to undergo that again. I have not directly asked Sue, but I think I was put off by the fact that IBM would not let her buy Approach and rejuvenate it. With IBM holding back, it seems the only way to bring the power AND simplicity of Approach out would be to clone it just shy of being sue-able by IBM. But, then it would still be great to tie in 1-2-3, since:

        -- Approach text/data fields cannot handle italicized text

        -- Approacch cannot handle Unicode, so, no Korean or Japanese characters (except Japanese in SuperBase, which is so localized to Japan it doesn't merit being called "Approach", hence SuperBase...)

        -- Approach has no sliders on the detail tables/repeating panels

        -- Approach fields or button controls cannot be collapsed or hidden except through LotusScript or tricky forms switching (sleight of hand, not elegant)

        -- Approach lacks some 1-2-3 benefits


      4. fzz

        Re: Preferred

        1-2-3 required every formula to begin with either a numeric constant, a + or -, or @, the last being the necessary and unavoidable first character in all functions. If you wanted to enter decimal numeral as the first characters in a text label, you had to precede those entries with a label prefix ', ", or ^ or 1-2-3 would throw a syntax error because the entry wasn't a valid formula. All things considered, I think most people preferred Excel's approach of consistently and uniformy expecting a = at the beginning of all formulas. Besides, Excel provided and still provides 1-2-3-like formula entry, without initial =, as an option. 1-2-3 never provided such an option.

        The worst failing in Excel, persisting to date, is lack of context-sensitive help. If you began typing a formula in 1-2-3 and had just typed @VLOOKUP( and pressed [F1], it'd display that function's syntax. Excel, OTOH, would just display the top-level help screen, and if you're foolish or inexperienced enough to turn off default web connection for the help facility, you'd be waiting a minute or two the first time you press [F1] in every Excel session.

        1-2-3 may have wasted aggregate years of users' lives, but Excel has wasted aggregate millenia.

      5. Graham Wilson

        @AC -- Re: Preferred

        "But even so 1-2-3 was always better than Excel."

        I agree. I base that on having used most of the biggies--1-2-3, Quattro, Supercalc, Visicalc etc. Goes back as far as Visicalc on my TRS80 and Supercalc on my Godbout S100.

        As with VHS vs Betamax, being 'better' depends on marketing. And irrespective of what one thinks of its software, Microsoft is a superb marketing company. Moreover, the long delay in porting 1-2-3 to Windows did it much damage.

        1. MrT

          Psion Abacus...

          ...was pretty good, back in 1984 on the QL and derivatives ;-)

          1-2-3 was in heavy use in the engineering practice where I worked in the late 80's, and really became useful with the '3D' version in about 1990 IIRC. It was that and not stuff like HevaCAD that drove the choice of hardware, until the office ditched ink and went for AutoCAD 12 or 13.

      6. n4blue

        Lazy coders

        If you want to see the result of coding laziness, try looking at what Excel thinks is the day after 28 Feb 1900. This is a carry-over from 1-2-3, whose coders decided a leap year should happen every 4 years with no exceptions. It also shows Microsoft's obsession with backward-compatibility (at least at that time).

        1. Allonymous Coward

          Re: Lazy coders

          Joel Spolsky has an anecdote about that particular bug:

        2. fzz

          Re: Lazy coders

          There was a time strict 1-2-3 compatibility was necessary for Excel, and a few years later it wasn't feasible to correct this due to many existing workbooks relying upon/working around this error. Stupidity and/or ignorance on Lotus's part, intentional nose-holding and just doing it on MSFT's.

          However, this is only an issue with the 1900 date system (epoch beginning 1 January 1900). The 1904 date system doesn't share this because its epoch starts on 1 January 1904. Also, FWIW, Excel's 1900 date system only fubars 1900. The formula ="2100-02-28"+1 formatted as an ISO date returns 2100-03-01.

      7. Flywheel

        Re: Preferred

        "I have to use Excel because the company, and the rest of the world do, but I hate it with a passion"

        Same here, and the '2010 version is so f*ck*d up that I spend half my time battling with that b**** ribbon, and software that tells me the spreadsheet I'm trying to open might have come from an evil user, so no, I can't edit the f**** thing.

    2. Erwin Hofmann
      Thumb Down

      Re: Preferred

      ... and 9 years before that was Framework ... that just shows how old I am ...

      Wikipedia: "Framework, launched in 1984, was the first office suite to run on the PC 8086 with DOS operating system. Framework could be considered a predecessor to the present GUI window metaphor as well as integrated interpreters. The spreadsheet program was superior in its day, offering true 3D capability, where spreadsheets could form outline which can be "opened" to reveal a separate spreadsheet as well as other frame types—a feat of sheer convenient function never again seen and further enhanced in much later versions".

      1. P. Lee

        Re: Preferred

        I loved Framework II. It worked even better when running on a 5mb HD rather than having to swap floppies when you wanted to switch between wp and spreadsheet.

        So much out of so little. Those days were amazing!

        Use these apps for your company and you could run an enterprise on a single server.

        1. Erwin Hofmann
          Thumb Up

          Re: Preferred

          ... yeah man ... 5 MB HD ... does were the days ... ha ha ha ...

      2. peter_dtm

        Erwin Hofman Posted Saturday 26th January 2013 12:42 GM

        and Framework still did so much more than MS Office has managed to achieve :

        1 Internally Consistent - all sub systems used exactly the same tools

        2 Seamless switching from subsystem to subsystem - open a wp; find a spreadsheet; click and you're in the ss; find a cell with a dbase - on click you're in the dbase; find a wp (or a ss) in a dbase table -- yup; one click and you're in the next layer.

        3 Indexes - because frame work was built up from frames (which may be any combination of wp; ss db) the hierarchy index just happened automatically with no pissing around with esoteric index building things that ONLY work in word - and you didn't need a completely different tool for writing presentations - why on earth would you ?

        MS Office is appalling; - to call it an integrated suite is bordering on false advertising. And like the rest of the MS world any thought of internal consistency is an absolute joke :

        for instance - open a word doc from explorer; now open another word doc from explorer --> two independent instances of doc.

        Now open an xl sheet from explorer; then open a 2nd xl both open in the same instance

        if they can't even get consistency at the basic level of just opening a file; it is not surprising the rest of the so called suite has the same constancy as you find in any other chaotic system

  2. Andrew Moore

    Great article...

    if you are doing requests- can you do Ashton Tate next (same rags to riches to rags story)

    1. Lars Silver badge

      Re: Great article...

      I fully agree, Visicalc was indeed something very new and surprising in its simplicity. One of the few software I would have allowed to be patented (even being against software patents, now). As far as I have understood they even thought about it but where adviced not to try it by some lawyer then. To day I suppose anything goes.

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. jolly

      Re: AmiPro

      I fully agree.

      IMO IBM (and Microsoft for that matter) have ruined pretty much every piece of software they've bought (or where they've bought the company, such as was the case with IBM's purchase of Lotus). Neither of these companies seem to have been passionate about the software they've acquired via these methods (especially not IBM). Their only passion would seem to involve taking out the opposition. Great big bloated* money-making bean-counter-ran machines.

      * - Bloated just like all the software they've acquired, two or three years after acquisition.

      <rant over/>

    2. dssf

      Re: AmiPro

      Word Pro is still pretty good. Of course, since so much time has passed that IBM/Lotus have done any justice to SmartSuite (aside from "maintenance mode" updates/patches/bug fixes), even's Write has some things I wish LWP had.

      I love the default color scheme, and I love the tabs. Also, to me, the greatest feature of LWP is the ability to create "divisions", or in-file links or imports/embeds/inserts of external files. Having the tabs makes it a cinch to see what is going on. Also kewl is the ability to drag tabs (of other insterted documents that form "divisions") into other tabs. (To be honest, I have not made use of "Sections" becuase "Divisions" visually suit my workflow better, even though I know sections have a purpose... I just never quite wrapped my mind around Sections, and stuck with Divisions.)

      As for WYSIWYG, in Lotus Approach and Lotus Word Pro, it is really nice to have not only WYSIWYG in the normal view, but in the various "Special Views" Word Pro offers: "PageWalker", "Panorama", "DocSkimmer", and "Zoomer". These helped make outstandingly excellent use of limited 14" displays of the earlier days, and are still even quite very useful for me on 17" and 22" displays. These views let the user drag and drop between panes and sychronize them. Not that that in itself is unique, but how it is done in LWP is slick and fun. More importantly that it being fun, it makes it vastly superior to most if not other word processing apps to see the page flow AND be able to read it without having to actually invoke print preview. That is a time saver.

      A modern day update to that feature would include, to my mind, a left-or-right-side pane to do file overviews. Another would be to increase the lenght of text in the tabs. They should move or slide faster.

      This making me angry.... I am fawning and waxing and waning over a product that deserves to be brought up to date in it's current form (mostly), and not transmogrified into Symphony. I realize and appreciate that the currrent Symphony may be IBM's/Lotus' backdoor way to give SmartSuite a rebirth and avoid patent litigation (purportedly, IBM and Lotus cannot "find" or "locate" the presumably still alive co-inventors of or rights-holders in SmartSuite, making it untenabler for IBM to release the code for updating.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. Tom 35

    Not Mac

    "that honour went to VisiCalc on Apple’s Mac II"

    No, it was the Apple ][+

    Lots of people bought an Apple ][ and the 80 column card addon just to run VisiCalc.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not Mac

      "Lots of people bought an Apple ][ and the 80 column card addon just to run VisiCalc."

      Indeed. My memory says that the term "killer app" was first used for the way Visicalc had given Apple a big boost over the many other microcomputers available at the time. From then on any new system was judged by whether it could be differentiated by a "killer app" that would make it something people preferred over the competition.

      1. dssf

        Re: Not Mac

        WOW! That's got me laughing heartily for this day's start. I forgot all about the fact that people bought add-on cards JUST to get more columns. I am thinking that that is a separate issue from just getting more screen real estate. Am I recalling correctly?

        Takes me back to the days of going to a BB to download the latesst Spider Graphics drivers. Ahh, the earlier days...

        1. Tom 35

          Re: Not Mac

          The Apple ][ was built to work on a TV as monitors were expensive so they were 40 columns (and upper case only). If you added an 80 column card you get 80 column, and upper/lower case but needed a composite monochrome monitor to read it.

          The Apple //e was the first with 80 column built in.

    2. R Cox

      Re: Not Mac

      This is where internet hoaxes start, I was looking if the byline was Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.

      The Apple ][ was not an expensive machine when it came out, especially considering what it could actually do. Yes, as today, you can say it was not buzzword compliant, or had the specs, but back them people who bought computers mostly knew what they were buying, and did not get bogged down in the specs or buzzwords. A machine pretty much was bought to accomplish a task.

      That said, an IBM PC could set you back several thousand dollars. The Apple ][ was around $1,000 and up.

      IBM was never who Apple had to compete with. When the Mac came out it was still a much cheaper machine than any IBM, the XT was well over $5,000. Apple was competing with Compaq, which released an inexpensive machine the prior year.

      However, for the same reason people bought an Apple ][, many people opted for a Mac rather the similarly priced Compaq because the Mac had Excel. Excel offered features far beyond any other spreadsheet, like the ability to calculate across sheets, and the Mac had scripting abilities that allowed any repetitive task to be automated.

      Not until kids began to build and sell computers from their homes did the computer fall to the now sub $1000 price point. IBM tried and failed to create a cheaper machine with the PC Jr. Apple stayed competitive with the Performa series, switching to an IDE interface. By the mid 90's laptops dominated the scene, and Apple again managed to build a competitive product. It is interesting to note that IBM exited the business.

      1. Tom 35

        The Apple ][ was not an expensive machine when it came out

        The base 16k Apple ][+ was about $1,200 and over $2,000 with 48k. A 143k 5.25 floppy was $700, the 80 column card was almost $400. There was no IBM PC, or Mac at the time.

        A typical setup with dual drives and green screen monitor, and 8 pin dot matrix would be around $4,500 before inflation so about 3x that in today's money.

        The price dropped later as RAM prices dropped and 3rd party add-ons were released.

      2. Kubla Cant

        Re: Not Mac

        Excel offered features far beyond any other spreadsheet, like the ability to calculate across sheets

        My recollection is that this was possible with Supercalc*. Supercalc ran on CP/M, and was included in the free software bundle that came with the Osborne 1 (together with WordStar, DBase II, and quite a lot else) at a cost of about £1400.

        It's astonishing how many of the big players in the DOS world screwed up the transition to Windows. The leading word processor of the time was arguably WordPerfect, but their unusable, buggy Windows version gifted the market to Word.

        * I could be wrong about Supercalc. Calculating across files was certainly possible at the time with a spreadsheet program I installed on a PDP/11 under RT11 - I can remember the frantic flashing of disk lights when you recalculated.

    3. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: Not "Mac II"

      Whoops - the article was fixed asap.


      1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

        Re: Not "Mac II"

        No worries. Just signs of old age :)

        (ducking quickly)

  5. Gareth Gouldstone

    Multiplan and Word for MS-DOS

    Multiplan and the first versions of Word shared a common interface; a menu system accessed by hitting escape and then typing single-letter commands to carry out tasks. Guess they developed them on Xenix using vi as an editor, then!

  6. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    I'm officially an old fart...

    I grew up with Wordstar on CP/M machines and Framework on pre-windows PCs. I remember my shock at discovering DOS lacked both a usable text editor and a compiler out of the box...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm officially an old fart...

      I can still remember the Control Keys for Wordstar even now :)

      Ran quite well on the Amstrad PCW if I recall.

      1. JimC

        Re: I'm officially an old fart...

        Those Wordstar Keystrokes got so burned into my skull that as soon as we started using Linux I seized on joe with cries of delight... No-one else in the oreganisation can understand why I insist on having it as part of the standard server build. What makes this so bizarre is that I was only really a Wordstar user for about the first two years of my career, and it was probably another twelve years before I started using Linux...

        1. Radbruch1929

          Re: I'm officially an old fart...

          I agree, joe is the first program I install on a new Linux install.

    2. jake Silver badge

      @Neil (was: Re: I'm officially an old fart... )

      Admittedly, edlin sucked. But it got the job done. As did copy con for short text (.BAT) files. I wrote a simple screen editor for MS-DOS in assembler, based on the vi key bindings, starting when we were testing MS-DOS 0.96 on Pilot Build IBM-PCs. I kept it running through DOS 2.11 ... By that time, there were many "shareware" text editors ... and then I discovered Brief and Mark Williams C, which had an excellent editor :-)

      It wasn't a compiler, but debug made a decent enough hex assembler. I wrote the vi work-alike using it, re-directing ("piping", in un*x parlance) a text file full of commands through it. No need for linking with .com files.

      Primitive? Absolutely! But try to remember that DOS was tiny ... It ran from 160K floppies. Most early machines didn't have hard-drives, and if they did they were probably only 5 megs. It was mostly useless as a program loader, until ver. 3.1 enabled the networking hooks ... But it was a hell of a lot better than dragging card-decks to the glass house and waiting days for the result!

      As a side-note, I had already been using un*x for several years (BSD on DEC, mostly) with a strong minor in SNA, when the IBM-PC came out. Those of us in the Glass House looked at each other & asked "What is IBM thinking? Thank gawd/ess it can't do networking!" ... the rest, as they say, is history :-)

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm officially an old fart...

      Editor? I used e.exe for ages but BRIEF gets my vote too (I used it a lot to code PARADOX code - I found I got better on with Borland's idea of databases than DBase :)

      One of the MASSIVE benefits for people who starting computing around that time was the recognition that learning shortcut keys was important (usually Wordstar compatible, unless you were using WP). Oh, and memorising Epson printer codes - the main benefit of not working WYSIWYG was that you actually focused on content, not presentation, I personally consider that still the curse of the clueless. If you want decent design you ask designers - they have the education, usually the talent and use programs more suitable for layout.

      Christ, I just realised that is decades ago. Where did the time go? Anyone remember DoubleDOS?

  7. armyknife

    Did it ever go away?

    Still using it today, indeed it's often the first application that gets fired up in the morning. :gasp:

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Did it ever go away?

      Me too - still use it for my home accounts.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I always thought...

    It was called 1-2-3 because it was all about numbers! No?

    No mention of the Unix (or xenix, at least, not sure now) version that ran on dumb terminals? Oh yes, I installed a few, and have the bruises from editing termcap/terminfo files but, just like the dumb-terminal version of Wordperfect, it worked.

    You can never accuse me of being unduly nice about microsoft, but Excel is the one thing that, over the years, I liked and still do. As to its better integration with Windows, wasn't this the hayday of MS's monopoly building? They had the Wndows code; other developers, of course, did not; the result went without saying

    1. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      Re: I always thought...

      I thought it was so named because using it was as easy as 1-2-3 - hence the shareware equivalent "As-Easy-As".

      I used to teach Symphony on IBM XTs in the early 90s and still have the scars to prove it...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Afaik the name came from being able to perform 3 main tasks; you could process values (spreadsheet), you could create graphics from those values and you could use it as some form of database.

      1. dssf

        Re: @Thad Do you remember....

        How Quattro Pro got it's name?

        I used to work with/for a former Ashton Tate/Borland employee/refugee and he told me it was a pun on "1-2-3", by using Spanish... Uno, Dos, Tres... Quatro, but they used two "t"s in the name. What a witty/comical use of a pun in a product name. Pity not many people caught on to the joke/pun without help.... Anyway, it was envisaged that Quattro Pro would decimate or supplant 1-2-3. History tells us...

        1. Wensleydale Cheese

          Re: @Thad Do you remember....

          " used to work with/for a former Ashton Tate/Borland employee/refugee and he told me it was a pun on "1-2-3", by using Spanish... Uno, Dos, Tres... Quatro, but they used two "t"s in the name."

          I always thought it was Italian, which does have two "t"s. Audi also made the Quattro spelling well known.

          I really liked Ami Pro but for me the Windows version of 1-2-3 was the first spreadsheet I had ever used and it kind of sat there like a dumb thing without giving me any hints how to drive it. Fine for existing users, not so good for a novice IMHO.

          In contrast Quattro Pro did give me hints how to drive it, especially with the way right click produced context sensitive menus, It remained my favourite spreadsheet for a decade.

          The last version of 1-2-3 I worked with was in 1996 and someone somewhere had decided that table pivoting was a job to delegate to Approach. It was truly painful to watch an animated graphic displaying "connecting to database" (client server architecture being the latest buzz phrase then) and then see it fall over in a heap. After an hour struggling with that I slipped the data onto a floppy, took it home and did the job in 15 minutes flat on my home system using Quattro Pro.

          1. Anonymous Coward

            Re: Data on a floppy and took it home

            Those must have been the in the days when people could take data home without leaving it in the pub on the way.

            (Although, seriously, I don't approve of taking data home. Actually, I don't approve of taking work home!)

    3. Tim99 Silver badge

      Re: I always thought...

      It was called 1-2-3 because it could be used as:-

      A spreadsheet (OK, that is why most people bought it);

      A database (Shudder, I still find people with thousands of rows of business critical information stuffed into a spreadsheet);

      A wordprocessor (Yes, really. I had several colleagues who used it to write letters).

  9. Anonymous Coward

    The impressive part was the cooperation IMO

    I lived and enjoyed Lotus 1-2-3 like so many others. And quite frankly I have to grin when thinking back about the huge sheet sections I made; totally filled with macro's in order to automate several steps; you could basically write an entire program with that. It didn't run too fast but oh well.

    No, but the really impressive part in my opinion was the cooperation between the leading companies back then. Instead of what we see happening now, where the only thing they seem to do is slapping each other in the face with patents, they actually cooperated and allowed other vendors to access their stuff too.

    I could make a table in WordPerfect; but I could also create a link with a Lotus 1-2-3 sheet; both programs could work together (sort off). The same applied to dBase III; Lotus could be used as a database (and also a database to contain your addressee's for example) but it was often easier to write such a program using dBase (or Clipper). And then the same thing applied: WordPerfect had no issues accessing said data either.

    IIRC (not fully sure anymore) the same applied between Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase.

    And all of that in a time where we had no such thing as Open Document Standards and the likes.

  10. Anonymous Coward


    "...For comparison purposes, just two years later Bill Gates was selling Windows 1.0 for $1 a copy..."

    It's always been ridiculously over-priced then?

    1. Epobirs

      Re: $1

      Back then you didn't buy Windows so much as you bought a software package that used it. It was more of a development environment that got bundled into the product. Like Ventura Publisher was the primary way Digital Research's GEM got on to PCs. You could buy GEM separately but since Ventura Publisher was the main reason to have it, why bother?

      The typical PC was so lacking resources back then that it was nuts to go into the GUI for anything less than a strongly visual app that needed it.

  11. Anonymous Coward
  12. Anonymous Coward

    Saw a copy of this in a charity shop, on 1.4mb floppies for £30... the problem was, this was 4 years ago! :O

  13. Mage Silver badge


    Visicalc on Apple and Supercalc on CP/M. 1980

    I don't think you could buy an IBM PC in UK before 1981

    Supercalc IMO was superior to Visicalc. Surprised the Article and Comments didn't mention it.

    The last command line Spreadsheet I used was "Cracker" in 1988 to 1991 on PCW CP./M along with Wordstar Clone NewWord.

    1. jake Silver badge

      Re: Supercalc

      The last command line spreadsheet I used was "sc" on Slackware. 10 minutes ago. Works like vi, even over a slow[1] modem link from our place in the wilds of Mendocino County. Handy.

      It works for our various businesses today, just as it did for my household expenses when I first ran across it in the early 1980s, as "vc". Why change what works?

      Glitter doesn't get work done, unless you're in the entertainment business.

      As a side-note, you couldn't buy an IBM PC anywhere, before August 1981 ... I can't remember when we got our first test units at Bigger Blue. Probably March-ish 1981. It was raining when I signed the delivery receipt, of course.

      [1] 9600 baud on a good day, usually more like 2400. Cracked & dusty cable plant makes for a bad signal/noise ratio in a salt-fog environment.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        sc, tyvm

        How did I not know about this?

        Thank you. I was going to say that entry was a bit tedious, but with sc -n to enable quick numeric entry mode it's a handy calculator when Alt-F2 =<expression> isn't enough. Definitely faster than waiting for a LibreOffice Calc to load.

        My first significant use of spreadsheets was on 1-2-3. Did an NVQ Level III in Spreadsheets and created a simple Invoice app using macros. You could watch the cursor move through the cells as it executed each step of the macro.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: sc, tyvm

          "with sc -n to enable quick numeric entry mode"

          $ xcalc & ... depending on what you're doing.

          I use bc (dc) near daily ... mostly with scripts.

          I also use sliderules & an abacus on a daily basis ... it ain't about the tool in question, it's all about the user knowing which tool to use for any given job.

  14. Spiny_Norman

    Good Times

    Lotus 1-2-3 was my first introduction to the world of spreadsheets. I used it to automate a quarterly task that took ten man days every quarter to do via 'back of fag packet' calculation & was never right. I'm still really proud of what I created - self taught with only the manual to help me. I'll always have a soft spot for 1-2-3 as I guess it started me down the slippery techy slope...

  15. Barry Rueger

    Multiplan and C64

    Although I liked PaperClip on the C64, it was MultiPlan that made me sit up and go "OH. WOW."

    A word processor was still like a typewriter with improvements, but automagically calculating numbers was just amazing, and I could see how far reaching that could be.

    And yeah, WP 5.1 still rules.

  16. John Tserkezis

    First, 1-2-3 lacked a word processor,

    WordPerfect filled that void, but never mind, Microsoft screwed them both royally anyway.

  17. Dave C

    Interesting account - however you seem to have wiped the Commodore Pet, which also ran Visicalc, out of history, although it was rather more significant for business users than the Apple ever was. Agree Supercalc was much better than Visicalc.

    For me it was Visicalc > Supercalc > Quattro Pro for Windows - which my former employers were still using up to a year ago. (I still use it occasionally for personal use). I don't agree that Quattro failed to make the transition to windows. It wasn't the first spreadsheet to have tabbed pages with straightforward internal links but it was the first usable implementation of them, and it was the first windows spreadsheet to have them. It was also the first windows spreadsheet with contextual menus. (And in my opinion its original macro scripting language was a lot easier to get to grips with than its rivals or the Perfectscript (ugh) which Novell introduced). All irrelevant ultimately since Excel adopted its rivals innovations and overtook them. Well except in one regard - I've never warmed to the basic design of the Excel GUI in the way I did Quattro's.

    1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge


      Personally I have been always much more fond of the stuff Borland cooked up than what Microsoft brought out, and I think that started when a Borland compiled version of Windows beat the living daylights re. speed out of one compiled by Microsoft. I dabbled a bit in Turbo Pascal (every language they had was "Turbo" because it compiled and ran faster and tighter than Microsoft's own version), but work meant I mainly ended up running Quattro Pro for spreadsheet work and was hacking lots of Paradox code in BRIEF, which was not Borland's, but had an option to directly support Paradox coding.

      I think it's because of BRIEF I had a deja vu feeling when encountering emacs on Unix, but I chickened out, and picked up enough vi to get to a point where I could install pico (and later nano) :).

      What staggered me was the lack of international capabilities of Excel. Until very recently it was impossible to take a spreadsheet in one language and use it in another language because macros were not tokenised. Really, my jaw dropped when I found out. A German version, for instance, would have "=SUMME(A3:A5)" in a cell, and when you opened that up in an English version it would not understand that that meant "=SUM(A3:A5)" in English. Honestly, we were past the year 2000 when I discovered this. To me, that was a WTF on the same scale as Vista..

      1. dajames

        Re: Borland

        ... hacking lots of Paradox code in BRIEF, which was not Borland's, but had an option to directly support Paradox coding.

        Borland did eventually buy BRIEF ... and that was the end of BRIEF.

  18. fzz

    Lotus had chances even past 1989 and 1-2-3 Releases 2.2 and 3.0. They came out with Notes in the early 1990s, and it was huge. The article says hated, but my own opinion differs.

    What killed Lotus was Jim Manzi's lack of vision and his focus on lawsuits against clone makers Mosaic and Paperback Software and later Borland. [I continue to believe Paperback Software's VP-Planner scared the crap out of Lotus because in 1985 it provided database functionality (OK, working with dBase files) similar to what it took Lotus another 4 years to produce in 1-2-3 Release 3, as well as a multidimensional database which provided a little of the functionality of Lotus Improv, along with a near perfect copy of 1-2-3's menu for 1/5 the price of 1-2-3.] So much concern over protecting the character mode menu in the late 1980s and early 1990s that when Lotus came out with its first Windows version, 1-2-3 for Windows 1.0, it REALLY SUCKED! MSFT came out with Excel 4 shortly afterwards, and then Excel 5 with VBA before Lotus came out with 1-2-3 Release 4 for Windows. That was game over.

    Lotus wasn't unique in delivering a really poor first attempt at a Windows version. WordPerfect's first attempt was even worse. Neither company could believe customers actually wanted to use Windows until Windows was on more than half of new PCs sold.

    Credit where due: the most innovative spreadsheet in its own time was WingZ, which defaulted to a 32K by 32K grid of cells which could be rearranged into grids with more rows/fewer columns or vice versa. And the most innovative modeling tool was Javelin Plus.

  19. James O'Shea


    "1-2-3 wasn’t the first spreadsheet for the PC - that honour went to VisiCalc on Apple’s Mac II"

    VisiCalc lived on Apple ][s and ][+s, years before the Mac II existed! I remember _using_ it!

    <exit, stage left, mumbling about the youth of today...>

  20. Anonymous Coward

    One of the Holy Trinity

    I took a strange route into technology, and have a very soft spot for the three things that got me there:

    1. 1-2-3 for DOS. My first job was cataloging every last piece of hardware in a large business using 123. The '/' key is burned into my brain. Luckily, Excel supports '/' as a proxy for Alt, so it gets to be useful: if your hand is on the right side of the keyboard it's quicker to do slash-<key> than Alt-<key> as you don't have to move your thumb from over the space bar. (No doubt I'll be downvoted for being a bad typist...)

    2. WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. How I hated the first three months with this beast. And how sad I was to give it up after years of use.

    3. SunOS 4. I loved my little pizza box with the screen the size of a small washing machine. <Sniff.>

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Whew, I feel old

    The article pretty accurately describes the situation as lived through in those heady days. 123 V3 was so slow and demanded such huge resources at time when we put huge effort into scrambling for every byte of memory andf it felt as though the writing was on the wall. The financial services company I was with at the time lived and breathed 123, but when Windows 3 came along we felt the need to have a good long strategic look at the way things were developing. Up to then, you sort of just went with the flow, but PCs were now core to the business in the same way as the minis in the computer room.

    So we went to talk to LDC and Microsoft. (You could in those days.) We came away with the conviction that LDC really didn't know what to do next, and had no clear plans, while Microsoft (it pains me to say this with hindsight of the monopoly we helped build) really were determined to provide a tools as good as 123 (and Multimate, the other standard of the day.) Based on their road map, which we could see they were achieving, we went wholeheartedly with Microsoft and Excel, a difficult process with the more conservative in the business.

    The other memory at the time was running "As Easy As," a spreadsheet compatible with Lotus .wks files. It was shareware,. but uncrippled,. and unlike123, did charts without expensive add-ons. A bonus was that it used less memory and was even faster than 123's best offering, version 2.1. That experience made me realise in a fledgeling state that it didn't need huge corporations to develop excellent software, so that when I started noticing Linux and Free Software around 96 or 97, my acceptance of Free Software was eased.

    Symphony had some die-hard users in those older days too. I was all for standardising on all-in-one options like Symphony or MS Works, spending extra money for those whose work demanded it, as some people were battling with MS Write and so on, but that was too egalitarian for the top dogs for whom technology was part of the ability to dish out sweeties to the favoured.


  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The quite bizzare situation is...

    ...that 1-2-3 in its last version from 1998 is still better than Excel in its newest version.

  23. ForthIsNotDead
    Thumb Up

    Ability Plus?

    Anyone remember Ability Plus?

    That was a *great* bit of software. Spreadsheet, database, word processor, and comms all in a single executable, with a really good file-manager screen thrown in.

    The spreadsheet, database, and word processor were all properly integrated. For example, you could write a document in the word processor, and include fields/columns/rows from a spreadsheet, and tables/queries from the database. If you changed the data in your spreadsheet, or your database, the word document changed. It was all live and real-time. All in DOS.

    What a great bit of software that was. I really liked it!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Re: Ability Plus?

      Still going, AND the last DOS version, 3, is available for download here -

    2. robin48gx

      Re: Ability Plus?

      I had a summer job as a lifeguard and the beach inspectors used that to keep track of all the beach hut problems.

  24. Anonymous Coward

    Good Thing It Wasn't Apple

    If Apple themselves could lay claim to an early spreadsheet, then rectangles with numbers, text, or anything else, in them would probably be one of their "patents." They'd be suing graph-paper printers.

    1. LinkOfHyrule
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Good Thing It Wasn't Apple

      Surely the cells of an Apple spreadsheet would be comprised of rounded rectangles, no?

      By the way, loving these old war stories - Reg, do more oldskool business like this please, makes a good read for us young'uns who wern't even born when half this shit went down!

      Paris because she loves a bit of the old DOS

  25. f1rest0rm

    Lotus Improv?

    Just me then?

    1. dak
      Thumb Up

      Re: Lotus Improv?

      Improv was great, just too much of a paradigm shift for most people to cope with.

      The very idea of a spreadsheet that started with just one cell put off a lot of people I know, but it was the best financial modelling tool I ever used.

      Reg, how about a series about plucky failures to run alongside these reminisences?

  26. robin48gx


    I had visicalc on my artari 800 in 1981.

  27. 0765794e08
    Thumb Up

    1-2-3 For Ever!

    I still use Lotus 1-2-3 (for DOS) at home for all my personal spreadsheet work. My household and personal finance spreadsheets have been lovingly crafted and honed to perfection over the years, and I’m damned if I’m going to ‘convert’ them to nasty old Excel!

    My first encounter with 1-2-3 was at work, in 1987. We had it running on a couple of IBM PCs, and a beefy Toshiba laptop with a funky orange gas plasma screen.

    At home, I first used version 2 for DOS on my Acorn Archimedes, via Acorn’s nifty PC Emulator.

    After that, version 3 for DOS came along for the ride as I transitioned through several laptops, running Windows 95, 98, XP, and now Windows 7. It now lives in an XP virtual machine on my Win7 laptop. I should be able to keep it running indefinitely, provided I can continue running an XP virtual machine on whatever host OS comes along (I’m seriously considering moving over to Linux after Win7 has run its course).

    But why, you may ask, am I still using quaint old 1-2-3?

    1) It’s retro. Retro is good. Plus it looks really cool running full screen on a black background.

    2) It’s rock solid. It doesn’t crash.

    3) It doesn’t create temp files. This has certain security benefits.

    4) You can ‘draw’ lines and borders by putting extended ASCII characters in the cells via their alt codes.

    5) The default font is white – you can make the text green by formatting the cell as protected. Two colours – neat!

    A big thank you to Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs for creating such a fantastic piece of software.

  28. Retron

    What really sunk 1-2-3 was a shoddy initial port to Windows and OS/2, as they were putting all their money into the (decidedly old-fashioned) DOS version. Meanwhile Microsoft kept cranking out new versions of Excel and 1-2-3 simply got left behind...

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