1983: Lotus Development Corporation begins selling its spreadsheet application for Microsoft DOS, called 1-2-3.

1-2-3 was not the first spreadsheet application — it was preceded by VisiCalc. But 1-2-3 quickly became the most popular, helping to boost sales of IBM PCs and PC clones, all of which ran DOS, and facilitating the rapid rise of Microsoft’s operating system.

VisiCalc was the first killer application for the Apple II computer. It, too, was not only a hit for its maker, Software Arts, but also helped propel Apple to the big time. Software Arts later released versions for the Atari 8-bit computer, the Commodore PET, the TRS-80 and the IBM PC.

But those versions came too late to unseat 1-2-3, whose built-in charting and graphing capabilities, plus its support for macros, helped it in short order to begin outselling VisiCalc. Lotus sold $53 million of the software in the company’s first year of existence, and 1-2-3 quickly came to dominate the business software market in the mid and late 1980s.

Spreadsheet software, which seems commonplace and rather boring today, was a major breakthrough for personal computing. Sure, it made it easy to keep track of columns of numbers, such as sales receipts, paychecks, expenses or even athletic records.

But the real power of the spreadsheet was the ability it gave business people to run quick and easy “what-if” calculations. What if we lowered the price of our widgets by $10? What if mortgage rates drop to 5 percent and we refinance? What if we laid off 5,000 workers and shuttered our Kalamazoo plant, then outsourced manufacturing to a Chinese company for less than half the price?

Technology pundit John C. Dvorak has lamented the effects of the “what-if society,” saying that corporate executives have become slavish devotees of spreadsheet scenarios, failing to make decisions based on what customers actually want. But there’s no doubt that the spreadsheet has given companies, both large and small, a far better picture of their bottom lines. For better or worse, that power has transformed American business and the economy.

1-2-3’s reign lasted nearly five years, dwindling only when the company failed to make the transition from DOS to the increasingly Windows-centric world of the late 1980s and early 1990s. By comparison, Microsoft Excel was much easier to learn than the forbiddingly austere, black-and-green text screen of Lotus’ product, and by 1989 Excel had started to outsell 1-2-3.

But something was lost in the switch to graphical user interfaces. While easier to learn, power users lamented the slowness of Excel, which requires you to use a mouse for nearly every action. By contrast, skilled users of 1-2-3 could accomplish complicated computing and formatting tasks nearly instantaneously, with a few quick keystrokes — keystrokes that often became second nature as they disappeared from conscious thought into muscle memory.

Lotus founder Mitch Kapor left the company he created in the 1980s and went on to co-found the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990. Since 2003 he has also been the chairman of the Mozilla Foundation. And his company, Lotus, went on to create another incredibly successful business application, Lotus Notes, which is still used by many companies today. Since 1995, Lotus has been a division of IBM.

Source: Wikipedia, A Brief History of Spreadsheets, various

Link: Jan. 26, 1983: Spreadsheets as Easy as 1-2-3

Link broken? Try the Wayback Machine.