Lotus 1-2-3 was one of the major spreadsheet software packages that propelled the PC to the forefront of business. First released in 26 January 1983 for MS-DOS, it was feature rich, as well as high performance compared to its contemporaries, and easily overtook VisiCalc, MultiPlan and SuperCalc. It enjoyed the premier position until the mid 1990s, when problems with their release schedule and resource requirements started to become problematic, and Microsoft Windows started to take traction. Their lack of consideration for graphical user interfaces led them to fall behind, providing an opportunity for Microsoft Excel to take over. Since then, they had never recovered.
Lotus 1-2-3 was officially discontinued by IBM, which acquired Lotus in 1995, on 30th September 2014, to very little fanfare. I’m sure hardcore spreadsheet users would appreciate this as one of the pivotal moments in spreadsheet history, even if it is was a long time coming.
I grew up with Lotus 1-2-3 on MS-DOS, and although I didn’t use it much and don’t have a copy of it anymore (as the disks were disposed of before I realized their value), there’s not much I can do about that. In remembering, and celebrating the passing of Lotus 1-2-3, I did manage to find some Spanish copies of evaluations of Version 2.0 and 2.2.
This was the rather memorable splash screen for Lotus 1-2-3, featuring a logo made from MS-DOS characters. Unfortunately, it refuses to go any further on DOSbox, probably because of the lack of serial number.
This is the later version 2.2 for MS-DOS, which was born the same year I was! This one could be run in various different graphic modes, such as VGA, EGA, Hercules, etc. The software itself was highly optimized, using direct-access routines to speed up performance.
The interface is very basic looking, after all, this is the MS-DOS version which displays text characters only. This is probably the main way most Lotus 1-2-3 users would remember their experience with 1-2-3, because by the time graphical user interfaces come around, Lotus was very much on the back foot.
Even later, after the acquisition by IBM, with Lotus Smartsuite bundled as OEM products with laptops, the software failed to gain much traction (along with other software such as Word Pro/AmiPro). I had used it at one point in time, but not for anything serious.
Their GUI Efforts
Fortunately, despite not having a copy of the MS-DOS version of 1-2-3, a kind member of OCAU managed to supply me with a stash of floppies including Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows Version 1.1, which appears to be released one year after Microsoft Excel 3.0 for Windows. This isn’t a very fondly remembered version of the software, being mostly forgotten as a graphical “port” of the text-based 1-2-3. However, now’s a good time to give it a spin, as a way of saying goodbye to 1-2-3.
The first step is to install it – and instead of bombarding you with images, I’ve decided to go for a few snapshots stitched into an animated GIF.
It involves the regular disk-swapping procedure as was common at the time. The software itself was provided on four 1.44Mb High Density IBM Format disks. Notice how installation could be customized to save space and select different target drives for different things, thus allowing for people with less storage space to install a “leaner” version of the software. Impressively, it supported integration with other databases through drivers, including dBase and SQL databases.
For systems with less RAM, you will note that, by default, the undo function is disabled. You better be careful with your work … lest you save something that you didn’t mean to do!
During install, it is possible to read the readme as well. It seems that the Windows software was quite interesting in that it used Adobe TypeManager to deal with fonts, thus allowing more than just the regular “monospaced” courier or dot matrix style fonts in printing.
Once installed, the software can be invoked by double-clicking on the icon in the program manager. This brings us to the main interface, which should appear quite similar to the DOS interface.
A quick look at the toolbar shows the age of the software – the save and open icons picture 5.25″ floppy disks! Most of functions of the icons can be easily recognised, although if you do need help, it is as simple as right-clicking, where the toolbar will then display the function text, as tooltips hadn’t been commonplace yet.
Especially notable is the Lotus 1-2-3 syntax, which die-hards are still probably used to using. Instead of the Microsoft Excel format- e.g. =sum(A1:A5), the 1-2-3 equivalent is @sum(A1..A5).
It’s notable that this syntax is probably still quite ingrained in older users, to the point that Excel and clones still support it!
There are also other intricacies, to the point where some quick references have been written.
The about dialog for this version shows the following information:
To get a quick idea of what functions were available, it’s a nice idea to cycle through the menus:
Feature-wise, at first glance, it seems that Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows is actually competitive with the Microsoft Excel effort. It makes me wonder why it wasn’t more successful. Similarly with Excel, shortcuts for certain commands that we take for granted today weren’t defined in the way that we expect (e.g. for cut, copy, paste).
Checking the limits, it seems that it’s identical to the MS-DOS versions at 8192 rows and column up to IV, however, that’s only half of what Excel 3.0 offered, as it offered 16384 rows.
Lets Have a Play
I decided to try entering some text – we can see the “regular” formula bar with the entry “entry” in it. Pressing enter converts this to a left-aligned label, prefixing it with ‘ (a trick still valid even today).
Okay, so lets try something else – lets try my hand at summing a sequence of numbers. Out comes the @-notation for functions.
It’s interesting from a usability standpoint that there’s no cell auto-advance. Entering a number and hitting enter commits it to the cell, and then you have to manually navigate to the next cell. Hitting tab scrolls the screen one page across. There is also no drag handles either, just like Excel 3.0. To fill a set of cells with a formula, one has to copy a formula cell and then select a range of cells and hit paste. Also interesting is that selecting a range of cells by dragging the mouse results in an outline around the cells with no shading.
I decided to take a peek into the different cell types the software supported, and it seems to mirror most of the same formats we see today. Again, I remain quite impressed to see so many of the functions we regularly use had been in place so early on!
Lets try out some graphing features – for this, I’ll need to fill some cells with seed data and then generate some random data from it. Lets take a look at the data fill options – the syntax is unfamiliar to me, but I worked it out in the end.
A variety of different graphs were available – all on a turquoise background. I thought the graphics were pretty good for its time, with even 3D graphs available.
You can even draw shapes and text over the graph, a common operation today.
Throughout my demoing, it was quite interesting to see that there were no issues, despite using the same configuration that I tested Microsoft Excel 3.0 with, that crashed numerous times. It’s hard for me to see why this wasn’t more successful at the time.
It is a sad occasion, and a long time in the making. Lotus 1-2-3 was king of the hill in the MS-DOS era, offering leading performance and stability, but failed to make the jump to Windows and has been floundering along with its bretheren (e.g. Word Pro, Wordperfect). It was the first spreadsheet I actually used, and its function syntax is still probably ingrained in many users today. When I look back upon what seems to be one of their earliest graphical efforts, it doesn’t seem obvious why it didn’t make it as the software seemed to perform just fine, with a competitive feature set. Regardless, Microsoft definitely used its clout in pushing out the other competitors in the productivity office software arena, and still holds onto its crown today.