What The Death Of Lotus 1-2-3 Teaches Us

This week, IBM announced that it was discontinuing support for Lotus 1-2-3, the product that was largely responsible for spreadsheets becoming a major computer application way back in the 1980s. Here are three lessons we can draw from that shutdown..

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

IBM's final dismissal of 1-2-3 (it acquired Lotus back in 1995) wasn't the subject of a major press release; we learned about it via a brief note revealing that 1-2-3 will be withdrawn from sale on 11 June and will have support stopped from 30 September. 1-2-3 may be effectively dead, but its legacy lives on in the near-universal adoption of spreadsheets as our main business calculation tool. This is what we should remember as it departs.

The inventor of a category rarely reaps the rewards. 1-2-3 wasn't the first spreadsheet; that honour goes to Visi-Calc. But it became the emblematic example of the category in the 1980s, when running 1-2-3 was often motivation enough to purchase a PC for thousands of dollars. We see the same pattern with modern technology; the iPad wasn't the first tablet, for instance.

No-one dominates forever. Chances are you don't think of 1-2-3 when you think of spreadsheets these days; Microsoft Excel is the dominant example, with Google Sheets, iWork Numbers and OpenOffice Calc all vying for consumer attention (and all operating as part of a suite). Being the top seller does not guarantee you will hold that role for eternity, a lesson that remains true for our current favourite technologies.

Old technology takes a long time to die Despite all those more visible competitors, the fact that it has taken until 2013 for IBM to completely abandon 1-2-3 reminds us that technologies survive long after they cease being mainstream. That's worth remembering whenever we pronounce a given technology as 'over'. If it's still useful for some people, it still has a place.


Comments

    Lesson 4: having a vastly overpaid CEO produces a company that's no longer hungry to move forward other than to serve CEO's ego. (See also: Borland)

    http://articles.latimes.com/1988-05-22/business/fi-4801_1_top-executives

    Demise, after a period of domination, is also likely to be Adobe's fate:

    http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/05/06/Adobe-kills-perpetual-licenses-as-creative-suite-moves-to-creative-cloud-cc

    http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/05/08/Adobe-photoshop-cc

    http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/05/08/Adobe-CC-Creative-Cloud-Complaints-Poll-of-Photographers-Photoshop-users

    http://www.dpreview.com/news/2013/05/15/adobe-lightroom-5-beta-google-hangout

    It might be a good thing seeing as one particular spreadsheet error has caused a lot of pain:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/18/uncovered-error-george-osborne-austerity

    "This week Rogoff and Reinhart are fighting to salvage their reputations from the humiliating experience of having their paper torn to shreds. The paper, which they continue to defend despite admitting mistakes, came under scrutiny after the pair released the spreadsheet calculations underpinning their model to rival academics at Massachusetts University. The error was discovered by Thomas Herndon, a PhD economics student at Massachusetts.

    The Massachusetts economists who led the attack on the 2010 paper questioned why their Harvard rivals used a generic Excel spreadsheet to carry out ground-breaking research. According to the European Spreadsheet Risk Group, spreadsheets were behind the collapse of the Jamaican banking system in the late 1990s, and their use was key in the development of collateralised debt obligations – the financial instruments that promised sub-prime mortgages could somehow become AAA-rated investments."

      That's not a spreadsheet error that's a user error. It could have just as easily occurred if you were working with a relational database, or writing an algorithm in a functional programming language.

    Still available for download for $US352 in-case you need it! http://www-03.ibm.com/software/products/us/en/123

    Way back then, was it Lotus who wanted to charge the almost new price for bugfixes and software upgrades?
    Before the concept of internet downloads, software still had to be distributed.

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