30 Years Ago: PC Spreadsheets Bring Number Crunching to the Masses

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 2013-08-28 Print this article Print

But all three of these spreadsheets were soon overshadowed on the PC by the introduction of Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983 by Lotus Development, founded by Mitch Kapor. Lotus 1-2-3 was developed by MIT-trained computer scientist Jonathan Sachs in x86 assembly language, which made it highly compatible with the IBM PC platform.

In fact, a standard test of IBM PC compatibility was whether Lotus 1-2-3 could run fast and reliably on the latest PC models to hit the market. The other gold standard PC compatibility test application was Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Lotus 1-2-3 also encouraged the development of spreadsheet macros, which were complex calculation strings with multiple variable expressions. This allowed users to create spreadsheets with macros that could perform complex stock market data analysis, as well as sales, profit and revenue forecasts. The possibilities were only limited by the user's imagination.

Soon third-party vendors were marketing their own packages of prewritten Lotus 1-2-3 macros for various vertical industries and markets, which only increased Lotus' hold on the corporate spreadsheet market through the end of the 1980s.

What did corporate IT executives think of this rapid adoption of spreadsheets that to a great degree drove the massive deployment of PCs in the 1980s? For them it was a two-edged sword. On one hand, deploying PCs loaded with spreadsheets, word processing, graphics and email applications was considered less costly than trying to extend expensive centralized mainframe processing to provide the same level of service. More people got convenient access to data processing resources sooner than if they had to rely on the data center. Those users liked having a measure of independence from the IT department.

But corporations also had to provide substantial technical support resources to keep all those PC users working productively. Then those PC users started knocking on the IT department's door demanding access to mainframe data, which started a whole new cycle of budgetary arguments and technology investment.

While this was going on, the spreadsheet market continued to evolve and mature. Lotus' dominance started to wane toward the end of the '80s thanks to a number of factors. Microsoft introduced the graphical Excel spreadsheet for the Macintosh in 1985 and for Windows 2X in 1987. There were other new competitors as well, including Borland Software's Quattro Pro, VP-Planner, Mosaic Software's Twin and Paperback Software.

Lotus didn't help itself by being late in introducing more advanced versions of its spreadsheet, giving Microsoft and other competitors the opportunity to grab more market share. Lotus tried to regain its market footing by introducing Lotus Symphony as an integrated office suite that included a spreadsheet, word processor, database and business graphics. But it was never able to repeat the early success of Lotus 1-2-3.

Borland presented enough of a competitive challenge that Lotus sued its rival on the grounds that Quattro Pro too closely mimicked Lotus' command menu structure. But the courts ruled in Borland's favor, claiming that command menus cannot be protected under federal copyright law.

Lotus also sued Paperback Software and Mosaic for copyright infringement, this time winning, which forced both companies to exit the spreadsheet business.

Despite the competitive setbacks, Lotus had grown into such a force in the enterprise software market that it became attractive to IBM, which launched a successful hostile bid to acquire Lotus Development in the spring of 1995. This gave IBM control of the company and its various products, including Lotus 1-2-3, Symphony and the Lotus Notes email platform.

But by then the spreadsheet competition had devolved into a battle of office application suites among Lotus, Microsoft, Borland, WordPerfect and a few others. Microsoft ultimately won that battle, and today Excel is pretty much the default spreadsheet application for corporate and home use. But that's another story.

IBM continued to support Lotus 1-2-3 and the related products until it announced in November 2012 that it was dropping the Lotus brand name even as it prepared to start beta testing new versions of the long established Lotus product under the name IBM Notes/Domino 9.0.



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