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in 1995) wasn’t the subject of a major press release; we learned about it via a brief note revealing that 1-2-3 will be withdrawn from sale on 11 June and will have support stopped from 30 September. 1-2-3 may be effectively dead, but its legacy lives on in the near-universal adoption of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.

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