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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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Apple Is Offering Free Battery Replacements for Some MacBook Models
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Want to extend the life of your MacBook Pro battery? A new offer from Apple might let you replace it for free.

Some non Touch Bar, 13-inch MacBook Pros that were manufactured between October 2016 and October 2017 are eligible for the program, and you can see if your computer qualifies by entering your serial number on Apple’s website.

The company said some of the batteries in models manufactured during this one-year period may be faulty, which is what prompted the offer. Although it’s not a safety issue, a component in the battery could fail, causing the battery to expand. Affected customers who already paid to have their battery replaced can also contact Apple for a refund.

The service takes three to five days to complete and can be done at any Apple-authorized service provider or retail store. Computers can also be mailed in to a repair center.

Before sending it away for repairs, though, it's important to check for other issues with your computer. Apple notes, “If your 13-inch MacBook Pro has any damage which impairs the replacement of the battery, that issue will need to be resolved prior to the battery replacement. In some cases, there may be a cost associated with the repair.”

[h/t The Verge]

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Trash Talk: 7 Ways to Recycle Your Tech Gadgets
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Our tech gadgets’ lifespans are short. New smartphone models come out at least once a year, and it’s easy to want the latest and greatest computer, gaming console, or 4K TV—without considering what happens to our used devices.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generated nearly 3.4 million tons of consumer electronics waste in 2014 [PDF] and that only around 40 percent of that waste was recycled—the rest went to landfills or incinerators. The U.S. is also a top destination for e-waste from other countries [PDF]—and in turn, we export much of our e-waste to places like China and India. However, more manufacturers and recycling companies are now taking steps to ensure the e-waste they collect is handled responsibly.

To do your part, don’t simply dump the old model in the trash—use one of these methods to resell or recycle.

1. DROP IT OFF AT A RETAIL STORE.

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Home and office suppliers often have in-store recycling programs that offer cash back or trade-in options. For instance, Best Buy accepts everything from appliances to car GPS units. (Not all products are accepted, though, so check before you go.) Staples offers trades on phones and tablets and will also take most other electronics, from fax machines to shredders, for recycling. Take your rechargeable batteries and cell phones to Lowes.

2. HOST AN ELECTRONICS DRIVE.

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Work with your employer or a group to put on a tech recycling event. It’s easy enough for people to bring in old TVs, audio equipment, and laptops. Then, you can collect all the items over the course of a few days or weeks and recycle them in bulk with a local organization. A good place to start: the EPA's list of certified electronics recyclers.

3. TRADE IT IN.

Several sites allow you to swap used electronics for cash. These companies refurbish, resell, or recycle old devices. To get started, enter your device’s details to receive a quote, then ship it in using a prepaid label and get money via PayPal, check, or gift card. Amazon’s Trade-In service accepts phones, tablets, speakers, and gaming equipment, provided the items are in good condition; Gazelle takes smartphones, tablets, and Apple computers; and NextWorth buys back tablets, smartphones, and wearables.

4. DOWNLOAD LETGO OR GONE.

Of course, there’s an app for that. Letgo is a free mobile marketplace for a variety of goods, including electronics, and all you have to do is take a picture of your old computer or TV, upload it, and then communicate with potential buyers within the app. Gone deals specifically with used tech, and the app does all the work, including pricing and generating shipping labels, for you—which means you don’t have to limit your sale options to your local area or meet strangers face to face.

5. SELL IT ON CRAIGSLIST, FACEBOOK, OR EBAY.

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Go old-school: List your old electronics on Craigslist, Facebook’s Marketplace, eBay, or your local classifieds. It’s not uncommon to find people who buy and refurbish gadgets for resale or to repurpose parts—or parents looking for a cheap used iPhone or laptop for their child. This way, you can negotiate the sale price and get cash on the spot. While there’s no guarantee that the buyer will dispose of your old phone or tablet responsibly once they’re done with it, selling does give the device a second (or third) life and hopefully will replace the purchase of a new product.

6. DONATE IT.

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While a new phone or gaming console seems like a no-brainer to some, there are many who can’t afford to purchase tech gadgets at all—new or used. If you aren’t able to find a recycling or donation center locally, consider one of these mail-in donation options:

Computers and peripherals: Goodwill has a partnership with Dell called Dell Reconnect. The program takes old computers—and anything you can connect to them, from keyboards to scanners—and refurbishes them for resale. Any parts that can’t be fixed are recycled. The National Cristina Foundation connects consumers to local nonprofits that need computers, and the World Computer Exchange accepts most computer equipment through a local chapter or by mail.

Cell phones: Several organizations collect old cell phones to refurbish, re-sell, and recycle in bulk and then use the funds to support their programming. The National Coalition for Domestic Violence will provide a prepaid shipping label for your phone, laptop, or gaming system, as will Lifecell —the latter purchases Lifestraws for those who lack access to clean water. Cell Phones for Soldiers takes gently used phones to provide communication services to troops and veterans.

Gaming gear: AbleGamers, which provides accessible gaming technology to people with disabilities, accepts donations of used consoles and games via mail. Gamers Outreach and Charity Nerds will take your donated gaming equipment to children who are hospitalized.

7. SEND IT BACK TO THE MANUFACTURER.

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Many companies, including Apple, Dell, HP, and IBM, offer branded recycling programs, which means they’ll take back used devices, recycle them responsibly, and often give you a gift card or a credit towards the purchase of a new device. Take your Apple products to your nearest store or create a prepaid shipping label online. IBM facilitates shipping of its branded products to preferred recyclers in certain states. Because Dell’s recycling program is in partnership with Goodwill, their take-backs aren’t limited to branded devices.

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