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Lotus 1-2-3, Three Decades On

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On January 26, 1983, a spreadsheet program called Lotus 1-2-3 burst onto the personal computing scene. Facing a horde of competitors including VisiCalc (the original Apple II "killer app"), Multiplan (from Microsoft), Supercalc (running on CP/M) and Context MBA, 1-2-3 was an upstart, but it had an edge: it was fast.

Before we dig in deeper, here's a clip from Triumph of the Nerds showing Lotus 1-2-3 as the IBM PC's first killer app:

In the early years of personal computing, each computer system had a "killer app" that made the entire machine worth buying just for that piece of software. In 1979, the Apple II series found its killer app for small business in VisiCalc, a spreadsheet that automated basic calculations like managing a budget, balancing a checkbook, or keeping track of a (relatively small) supply chain. In the late 70s this was a huge deal -- prior to computerized spreadsheet programs, "spreadsheets" were literally big pieces of paper, and you had to do the math yourself every time any value changed. Simply having a computer re-run the same series of computations saved office workers tons of time, and eliminated some of the worst drudgery associated with finance. Computer spreadsheets also allowed easy forecasting -- "What if we sold 10% more this year, or got this part for 5% off?" -- with instant results. It's hard to imagine now what a revolution this was, but if your job was running the budget every few days, it was sheer magic to change some number and hit Return, then see the updated numbers ripple through automagically.

When IBM introduced its PC in 1981, users wanted to see its killer app -- where was its VisiCalc? (VisiCalc was actually ported to DOS, though it had some limitations.) The "where's my killer app" answer soon came when Lotus 1-2-3 arrived in early 1983. Mitch Kapor, a friend of the developers of VisiCalc, founded Lotus Development Corporation and set out to own the IBM PC market for spreadsheets. Kapor succeeded, and Lotus went public in October of 1983.

What Made 1-2-3 Special

In a word, speed. 1-2-3 was written in assembly language, "close to the metal" as computer nerds like to say. Writing in that computerese assembly language was more difficult for programmers than using a high-level language like C, but the resulting programs ran much faster on the plodding computers of the day. In other words, let the programmers suffer the pain of coding in a language that was Greek to them -- the users would reap the rewards when their program ran quickly.

In addition to its assembly roots, 1-2-3 used special graphics routines that wrote directly to the IBM PC's video memory, rather than passing each character through the operating system to paint onto the screen. This design decision had two outcomes: first, it made the screen update faster (making the program respond faster to user actions like scrolling); second, it meant that the app was locked into the IBM PC hardware. Locking your app into the IBM PC hardware ecosystem was a moderately gutsy business move at the time; if 1-2-3 didn't take off on the IBM PC, it would be harder to move it to another platform because of all its IBM-specific coding (assembling and custom graphics). Apps like VisiCalc existed on multiple platforms, though they generally failed to perform as well, in part because it had to serve multiple kinds of systems.

That IBM PC-exclusive decision was also surprisingly crucial when PC clones began to appear. When you bought a PC clone in the 1980s that promised "100% compatibility" with a true blue IBM machine, that was a nod to apps like 1-2-3 that relied on the specific quirks of the IBM PC's video system. Without perfect compatibility, a clone couldn't run 1-2-3, and indeed testing your clone against 1-2-3 was one way to know whether it was ready for primetime. This led to a homogeneous IBM clone landscape, while the rest of the personal computer industry was spawning various competing systems with their own ecosystems of software -- some good, some great, some crappy -- but none of which could run Lotus 1-2-3 in its original form.

Beyond its speed, 1-2-3 offered charting and graphing, macros, basic database functions, and could even be used as a simplistic word processor. Because it had a broad feature set and was crazy-fast, an office worker in 1983 could spend the day in 1-2-3 and get a lot done.

Lotus 1-2-3 Rocks

This period video gives you a sense of what a big deal 1-2-3 was. It eliminated the so-called "floppy shuffle" of using multiple apps to get your work done. When you used a system lacking multitasking (like the IBM PC's DOS or the Apple II), putting together an integrated report (spreadsheet, graphs, words) was frustrating if you had to use lots of apps. By comparison, 1-2-3 was a frickin' Broadway show. Check this out:

Dan Bricklin on 1-2-3

Lotus 1-2-3 and Dan Bricklin's VisiCalc are the two most historically interesting spreadsheet apps of their era. Part of this interest came from the fact that Bricklin and Kapor (founder of Lotus) were friends and competitors. Yesterday, Bricklin wrote about the history of 1-2-3 on his blog. Here's a snippet:

Getting personal computers onto the desks of office workers everywhere was a very important step in the history of computing. Lotus was a major factor in taking this step. Their later product, Notes, I believe helped get "wired" computers onto those desks and hastened the adoption of web browsers for many reasons (it's a lot easier to get people to try new software and services when they already have the expensive hardware and it's wired and ready to go). While the old Lotus is not around in its old form, its employees have gone on to help create other great things in the computer industry. Mitch has continued his role as an industry statesman, and I hope is enjoying this anniversary.

People frequently ask me how I feel about 1-2-3 overtaking my product VisiCalc. While it always feels bad to lose your position as a leader, and not get to participate as much in the benefits that come with that position, I'm really happy that at least it was 1-2-3 that took the mantle from VisiCalc. Mitch and Jonathan Sachs were our friends and they made their product a follow-on (it could read VisiCalc files, so you could move your spreadsheets from VisiCalc to 1-2-3 to Excel to Google Docs without retyping) keeping a lot of the "DNA" of our ideas. Lotus improved on the design of the electronic spreadsheet, so it stayed a major productivity tool. Mitch kept his company here in Massachusetts (Mitch had moved back from Silicon Valley to found it). And our product is still the first in the line and is not forgotten. As a child of the 1950's and 1960's, to know that you made something that changed the world, and that it lives on in products that acknowledge your starting point, is something most people could only dream about and for which I will be forever grateful. The launch of Lotus 1-2-3 helped make that happen and brought personal computing to a large part of business in the process. Happy 30th!

If you want a sense of what 1-2-3 was actually like to use, check out this 80s-tastic training video. (I didn't watch the whole half hour, and I doubt you should.)

One More Video

This video explains the early history of Lotus as a company. Clothing and hairstyles aside, this sounds a lot like the working styles and raw excitement of more recent tech companies like Facebook and Google. The video is shot from the audience of a talk by Mitch Kapor, so the audio isn't great -- but it's still a fascinating historical artifact.

So as you fire up Google Docs or Excel today, think back to 1979 and 1983, the two major inflection points when the killer apps of the past made fortunes for Apple and IBM. Happy 30th, 1-2-3.

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Courtesy University of Manchester
148 Lost Alan Turing Papers Discovered in Filing Cabinet
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Courtesy University of Manchester

You never know what you’re going to uncover when you finally get around to combing through that decades-old filing cabinet in the back room. Case in point: The University of Manchester recently unearthed 148 long-lost papers belonging to computer science legend Alan Turing, as ScienceAlert reports.

The forgotten papers mostly cover correspondence between Turing and others between 1949 and his death in 1954. The mathematician worked at the university from 1948 on. The documents include offers to lecture—to one in the U.S., he replied, “I would not like the journey, and I detest America”—a draft of a radio program he was working on about artificial intelligence, a letter from Chess magazine, and handwritten notes. Turing’s vital work during World War II was still classified at the time, and only one document in the file refers to his codebreaking efforts for the British government—a letter from the UK’s security agency GCHQ. The papers had been hidden away for at least three decades.

A typed letter to Alan Turing has a watermark that says 'Chess.'
Courtesy University of Manchester

Computer scientist Jim Miles found the file in May, but it has only now been sorted and catalogued by a university archivist. "I was astonished such a thing had remained hidden out of sight for so long," Miles said in a press statement. "No one who now works in the school or at the university knew they even existed." He says it’s still a mystery why they were filed away in the first place.

The rare discovery represents a literal treasure trove. In 2015, a 56-page handwritten manuscript from Turing’s time as a World War II codebreaker sold for more than $1 million.

[h/t ScienceAlert]

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Typecast: Mavis Beacon, The Typing Teacher Who Never Was, Is Turning 30
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When Software Toolworks co-founder Joe Abrams went to the software convention Comdex in early 1988, he was greeted by industry colleagues offering their congratulations. He had somehow been able to secure famed typing instructor Mavis Beacon to endorse his company’s typing tutorial, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

“We’ve been trying to get her for years,” one said. “How did you do it?”

Abrams shrugged. It had been easy to get Mavis because Mavis didn’t exist. Abrams and his partners had invented her.

“She was not a real person, and we never said she was,” Abrams tells Mental Floss. “A kind of cult developed around this fictitious character.”

In Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, people struggling to adapt to the growing number of personal computers in circulation were led through a series of exercises and lessons intended to improve their typing speed. Other programs had existed prior to Mavis Beacon, but none had bothered to give their sterile software an identity. With Mavis, Software Toolworks developed a digital Betty Crocker—a cheerful, patient, good-humored persona that stood out on retail shelves. By 1998, 6 million copies had been sold.

The company was amused to receive calls requesting interviews or personal appearances by Mavis, a sure sign she was resonating. But before the typing icon became one of the PC industry’s biggest success stories, Abrams discovered that not all retailers would warm to the idea of a woman of color—even a fictional one—endorsing software.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks was the name programmer Walt Bilofsky decided to give to his modest software enterprise in 1980. Selling programs that offered type-to-text features uncommon in those days, Bilofsky built up a business around a small circle of personal computer hobbyists in need of productivity programs. Presentation and marketing was not a priority.

“We sold programs in Ziploc bags,” Bilofsky tells Mental Floss.

By the mid-1980s, working together with his cousin Joe Abrams, Bilofsky was ready to move into more commercial pursuits. Another company, Software Country, solicited his help in putting together a home gaming bundle. When Bilofsky wrote a game called Chessmaster 2000 for Software Country’s Les Crane, the two companies merged, and Crane (who died in 2008) became a partner.

It proved to be a perfect coupling. Bilofsky and his small stable of programmers knew software, while Crane—a former talk show host—knew marketing. For Chessmaster 2000, Crane went to considerable effort and expense to imagine a “chess wizard” who would personify the game for players. They wouldn’t be playing a faceless algorithm, but a wizened old pro who appeared on the game's box. With the photo shoot alone costing $10,000, it was a far cry from the plastic bags of Bilofsky’s past.

“Les’s marketing was huge,” Bilofsky says. “I was aghast he spent that much. But he was right.” Chessmaster 2000 was a huge hit for the company. Their next major effort, a typing tutorial, would eclipse it.

According to Abrams, the company was a “wave rider, not a wave maker.” Chess programs were popular, and Abrams saw opportunity to anthropomorphize it with a mascot of sorts. The same proved true for typing programs, which were numerous but often paid little attention to user interface.

“We wanted to pick something where we could make that interaction different than anything that had come before,” Abrams says. “The difference was immersion.” If someone missed a word while “driving,” a bug might splatter on the windshield. If the user wanted to take a break, the software wouldn’t fight them.

“This was before Windows, when pop-up menus were not the norm,” Bilofsky says. “The user could drive the program. You didn’t need to have the manual open in order to use it.”

Perfecting the software was only half the battle. At the time, the computer industry was getting more invested in personalizing their marketing. Celebrities like Bill Bixby and Isaac Asimov endorsed hardware from IBM and Tandy, respectively, but few human faces appeared on software boxes. Abrams thought some kind of industry typing standard might exist that could be licensed, but came up short.

“The other typing programs at the time, like Typing Tutor or MasterType, had very vanilla names and packaging,” he says. “They didn’t grab you. What we wanted was something to make people go, ‘Woah.’ We wanted people to pick the box up, turn it over, and read it.”

One day, Abrams and Crane went to Saks Fifth Avenue near their offices in Beverly Hills so Crane could buy his fiancée a present. At the perfume counter, they were assisted by a saleswoman who seemed to pique Crane’s interest. “He turned to me and said, ‘This is the person we should have.’ I thought he was crazy.”

The employee, Renee L’Esperance, was Haitian with limited English and 6-inch long fingernails. Abrams observed this incongruous feature as being contrary to what a typing master might opt for, but Crane was insistent. “He said it didn’t matter.”

Software Toolworks

The two went back the next day and offered L’Esperance $500 and a new suit in exchange for doing a photo shoot for the company. The photography took less than a day near the Century City towers, with Abrams’s 5-year-old son walking hand-in-hand with the faux typing teacher. Crane chose a fictitious name, Mavis Beacon, after singer Mavis Staples and the beacon of light she represented to clumsy typists everywhere.

The software had its face. Abrams, however, had no idea not everyone would welcome it. “We really didn’t understand the implications of putting a black woman on the cover of an educational product,” he says.

A screen shot from 'Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing'
Lazy Game Reviews, YouTube

Software Toolworks began taking orders for Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing in 1987. As with Chessmaster 2000, interest in a product that humanized a computer program was high. But when the company began circulating materials featuring L’Esperance, Abrams was shocked to see advance orders plummet by 50 percent.

“When they saw the package, orders got cut,” he says. “Even though this was 1987, people were afraid to carry an educational product with a black woman on it. They said people just wouldn’t buy it.” In New York, a major mail order and retail giant refused to carry it, citing a glut of typing product.

Opinions changed after The New York Times ran a glowing review of Mavis Beacon in its November 17, 1987 edition. “I got into the office and the phones were lit up asking where to get it,” Abrams says. “I decided to tell them to go to that retailer. By 11 a.m., a buyer for the company asked where he could get 150 copies immediately.”

From that point on, Mavis Beacon became an unstoppable force in software. Although the company never created a fake biography for Mavis or implied that she was a real person, a kind of mass delusion overtook both the media and the buying public. Teachers would call asking for her; Software Toolworks was inundated with requests for speaking engagements. L’Esperance, who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after the photo shoot, was the most famously anonymous woman in software.

“I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," a customer told The Seattle Times in 1995. "There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."

Mavis Beacon would continue to be updated over the years, both in and out of the package: L'Esperance got regular Photoshop updates to upgrade her clothing or hairstyle. In 1994, The Software Toolworks was sold to the Pearson group for $460 million. “They were really interested in the educational side of the business,” Abrams says. “Mavis Beacon was our bestselling product, so you could make the theoretical statement it was a driving force behind the purchase.”

Abrams went on to invest in Intermix, the company behind the pioneering social network hub Myspace. While that’s an impressive milestone, he’s most often asked about the famed typing teacher he helped bring into the burgeoning home computer industry.

“To this day, people will say to me, ‘Why did Mavis disappear?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, she never really appeared.’”


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