Lotus 1-2-3 hits the big 3-0

Happy birthday to the world-changing spreadsheet program, which debuted 30 years ago this weekend

Do you remember the first time you saw Lotus 1-2-3? I certainly do, and if you're of, ahem, a certain age, I bet you do, too. I vividly remember thinking, "This is going to change everything." For mainframe staff crushed by the burden of endlessly crunching and recrunching numbers -- or even balancing a checkbook -- Lotus 1-2-3 came as more than a breath of fresh air. It reeked of divine intervention.

Before Lotus 1-2-3 hit the stands, VisiCalc ruled the cross-footing roost. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston's 1979-era VisiCalc could run cross-foots and reliable recalculations, as well as scroll spreadsheets on an Apple II, all in 20KB. By 1981, VisiCalc had been ported to the IBM PC, selling about 700,000 copies in all flavors during its lifetime. VisiCalc was pioneering and did yeoman work, but it was clunky, very limited, and lacking vision.

It took Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs -- and seed money from Ben Rosen -- to come up with a spreadsheet program that not only calculated and scrolled, but did so on big spreadsheets with with named cells and ranges. Lotus 1-2-3 also charted and plotted. The term "1-2-3" was meant to invoke the idea that the program could perform as a spreadsheet, a graphics suite, and a database program, all of which it did with aplomb.

Then there were macros: full keyboard-aping "slash" command sets, branching, prompted input, looping, subroutines, and enough nooks and crannies to turn a budding programmer's head 360 degrees.

Lotus Development Corp. sold its first copy of 1-2-3 for DOS on Jan. 26, 1983, and it never looked back. Every single number-cruncher I knew at the time couldn't wait to part with the princely sum of $495 for the product -- on top of the price of the PC, typically $3,000 to $5,000. To this day, I believe Lotus 1-2-3, all by itself, started the Microsoft-Intel architecture hegemony. It was that good.

In its first year, Lotus 1-2-3 sales topped $53 million -- in 1983 dollars, mind you. In 1984, the number tripled to $156 million.

I asked Kapor to reminisce a bit about the early days. Here's what he said:

I'm really proud of what we created. It was state of the art for its day and set a standard for power and ease of use. 1-2-3 was the first piece of software which drove hardware sales. It legitimized the use of the personal computer in business and help it get to scale.

Kapor didn't rest on his laurels. In 1990, with John Barlow and John Gilmore, he co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization at the forefront of "defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights." EFF is currently pressing for reform to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, in the wake of Aaron Swartz's unconscionable prosecution. Kapor also served as founding chair of the Mozilla Foundation in 2003, where he played a key role in making Mozilla, Firefox, and open source what it is today.

If you shelled out $495 for Lotus 1-2-3 back then, your investment has paid bountiful dividends all across the digital world as we know it.

This article, "Lotus 1-2-3 hits the big 3-0," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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