Envious of VisiCalc's success, a small group of computer freaks at a start-up company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, refined the spreadsheet concept. Headed by Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs, the company designed a new product and launched the software industry's first full-fledged marketing blitz. I remember seeing a large display ad for 1-2-3 in The Wall Street Journal. It was the first time that I'd ever seen software advertised in a general interest publication.
Released in January 1983, Lotus Development Corporation's 1-2-3 was an instant success. Despite its $495 price tag (yes, people really paid that much for software), it quickly outsold VisiCalc, rocketing to the top of the sales charts, where it remained for many years.
Lotus 1-2-3 improved on all the basics embodied in VisiCalc and SuperCalc and was also the first program to take advantage of the new and unique features found in the powerful 16-bit IBM PC AT. For example, 1-2-3 bypassed the slower DOS calls and wrote text directly to display memory, giving it a snappy and responsive feel that was unusual for the time. The online help system was a breakthrough, and the ingenious "moving bar" menu style set the standard for many years.
One feature that really set 1-2-3 apart, though, was its macro capability - a powerful tool that enabled spreadsheet users to record their keystrokes to automate many procedures. When such a macro was "played back," the original keystrokes were sent to the application. Although this was a far cry from today's macro capability, 1-2-3 macros were definitely a step in the right direction.
1-2-3 was not the first integrated package, but it was the first successful one. It combined (1) a powerful electronic spreadsheet with (2) elementary graphics and (3) some limited but handy database features. Easy as 1, 2, 3 - get it?
Lotus followed up the original 1-2-3 Release 1 with Release 1A in April 1983. This product enjoyed tremendous success and put Lotus in the enviable position of virtually owning the spreadsheet market. In September 1985, Release 1A was replaced by Release 2, which was a major upgrade that was superseded by the bug-fixed Release 2.01 the following July. Release 2 introduced add-ins, which are special-purpose programs that can be attached to give an application new features and extend the application's useful life. Release 2 also had improved memory management, more functions, 8,192 rows (four times as many as its predecessor), and added support for a math coprocessor. Release 2 also included some significant enhancements to the macro language.
Not surprisingly, the success of 1-2-3 spawned many clones - work-alike products that usually offered a few additional features and sold at a much lower price. Among the more notable were Paperback Software's VP Planner series and Mosaic Software's Twin. Lotus eventually took legal action against Paperback Software for copyright infringement (for copying the "look and feel" of 1-2-3); the successful suit essentially put Paperback out of business.
In the summer of 1989, Lotus shipped DOS and OS/2 versions of the long-delayed 1-2-3 Release 3. This product literally added a dimension to the familiar row-and-column-based spreadsheet: It extended the paradigm by adding multiple spreadsheet pages. The idea wasn't really new, however; a relatively obscure product called Boeing Calc originated the 3-D spreadsheet concept, and SuperCalc 5 and CubeCalc also incorporated it.
1-2-3 Release 3 offered features that users wanted - features that ultimately became standard fare: multilayered worksheets, the capability to work with multiple files simultaneously, file linking, improved graphics, and direct access to external database files. But it still lacked an important feature that users were begging for: a way to produce high-quality printed output.
Release 3 began life with a reduced market potential because it required an 80286-based PC and a minimum of 1MB of RAM - fairly hefty requirements in 1989. But Lotus had an ace up its corporate sleeve. Concurrent with the shipping of Release 3, the company surprised nearly everyone by announcing an upgrade of Release 2.01. (The product materialized a few months later as 1-2-3 Release 2.2.) Release 3 was not a replacement for Release 2, as most analysts had expected. Rather, Lotus made the brilliant move of splitting the spreadsheet market into two segments: those with high-end hardware and those with more mundane equipment.
1-2-3 Release 2.2 wasn't a panacea for spreadsheet buffs, but it was a significant improvement. The most important Release 2.2 feature was Allways, an add-in that gave users the ability to churn out attractive reports, complete with multiple typefaces, borders, and shading. In addition, users could view the results onscreen in a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) manner. Allways didn't, however, let users issue any worksheet commands while they viewed and formatted their work in WYSIWYG mode. Despite this rather severe limitation, most 1-2-3 users were overjoyed with this new capability because they could finally produce near-typeset-quality output.
In May 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0. As you probably know, Windows changed the way that people used personal computers. Apparently, the decision makers at Lotus weren't convinced that Windows was a significant product, and the company was slow getting out of the gate with its first Windows spreadsheet, 1-2-3 for Windows, which wasn't introduced until late 1991. Worse, this product was, in short, a dud. It didn't really capitalize on the Windows environment and disappointed many users. It also disappointed at least one book author. My very first book was titled PC World 1-2-3 For Windows Complete Handbook. I think it sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
Serious competition from Lotus never materialized. Consequently, Excel, which had already established itself as the premier Windows spreadsheet, became the overwhelming Windows spreadsheet market leader and has never left that position. Lotus came back with 1-2-3 Release 4 for Windows in June 1993, which was a vast improvement over the original. Release 5 for Windows appeared in mid-1994.
Also in mid-1994, Lotus unveiled 1-2-3 Release 4.0 for DOS. Many analysts (including myself) expected a product more compatible with the Windows product. But we were wrong; DOS Release 4.0 was simply an upgraded version of Release 3.4. Because of the widespread acceptance of Windows, that was the last DOS version of 1-2-3 to see the light of day.
Over the years, spreadsheets became less important to Lotus (its flagship product turns out to be Notes). In mid-1995, IBM purchased Lotus Development Corporation. Two more versions of 1-2-3 became available, but it seems to be a case of too little, too late. Excel clearly dominates the spreadsheet market, and 1-2-3 users are an increasingly rare breed.
Was this article helpful?