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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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As Big as a What? How Literary Size Comparisons Change Over Time
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Many humans are bad at visualizing what measurements really mean unless you give them a comparison. Tell someone a space is 360 feet long and they'll probably just blink; say it's the length of a football field and you might get a nod of comprehension. That's why many writers use size comparisons rather than precise measurements in non-technical works. (It also helps convince people your work wasn't written by a robot.) But the comparisons that writers use reflect the culture and time period they're in—tell an ancient Roman something is the size of a credit card or a car, and you're not going to get very far.

As spotted by Digg, programmer and data visualization whiz Colin Morris recently performed an experiment that demonstrates how these kinds of object comparisons change over time. Morris mined the vast Ngram dataset of English-language Google Books for occurrences of the phrase "the size of ___" between 1800 and 2008, then ranked the top results by popularity overall and in specific centuries. Some of the results made perfect sense (England has phased out the shilling; basketball didn't exist for most of the 1800s), while others were more surprising (why did we stop referring to cats as a popular size comparison in the 21st century?).

Overall, Morris found that items from the natural world have fallen into decline as reference points, while sports analogies have exploded onto the scene. (Morris wonders whether this has to do with the rise of leisure time, and/or the mass media that exposes far more spectators to sports than ever before.) Some of the specific results also have intriguing stories to tell: We no longer talk about the size of pigeon's eggs largely thanks to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in the United States. The numbers of city pigeons just don't compare—when was the last time you saw one of their eggs?

There is one clear winner across the centuries, however: peas. These tiny legumes were the most popular reference point in the 1800s and they remain so today. The same is true of runner-up the walnut. Let it not be said we have nothing in common with our ancestors.

Here are the top five items in each century that Morris investigated:

1800s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. hen's egg

1900s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. orange

2000-2008

1. pea
2. walnut
3. quarter
4. football field
5. egg

For the full list, head over to Colin Morris's site.

[h/t Digg]

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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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