Lotus blossom #history

Extract from The PC Pioneers

On this day in 1947 Jonathan Sachs was born – with Mitch Kapor he would found Lotus and launch Lotus 1-2-3

Sachs had been a FORTRAN programmer at MIT and spent several summers working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Mariner IV satellite.  While working at Data General he saw a demo of VisiCalc presented by the designers themselves and was asked to clone it for Data General minicomputers.  He acquired an Apple II and a VisiCalc manual and, operating as Concentric Data Systems, he wrote a spreadsheet program called SuperComp.  It was distributed by Access Technology with Sachs retaining rights in the source code so he was later able to develop it for DEC and to begin to think about CP/M versions.

Mitch Kapor was a New Yorker with broad interests.  While at Yale he was both the music director and programme director of the university radio station.  He went on to be a disc jockey on a Connecticut rock-station, where he became keen on transcendental meditation.

While working for his master’s in counselling psychology Kapor maintained an interesting mix by teaching TM while also working as a computer programmer.  He attended a master’s course at the MIT Sloan School of Management but did not graduate.  There he met Eric Rosenfield who was finding a program he was using to be very heavy going.

Developed by MIT this was software called TROLL.  It is still in use today by banks, government agencies, colleges and corporates for econometric modelling and statistical analysis.  Based around a database engine it had a suite of tools to manipulate, simulate and estimate equations.  As Rosenfield was running it on a time-share computer, the time it took him was proving very costly.

RANDOM ACCESS MOMENT:   Troll is also the term used in Internet circles to mean someone who is deliberately provocative in posting left-field or controversial views to fish for emotional responses.  For UK readers to understand the usage they need to appreciate that what we call trawling, in US English is spelled trolling.

To assist Rosenfield with his work Kapor wrote TinyTROLL on an Apple II.  Clearly working with TROLL really was not very easy, as a similar approach to that of Kapor was made by David Lilien who was also drawn to the Apple II colour graphics capabilities when he produced MicroTSP.   Professor Steven Hall called his software Reg-X when developing yet another version.

When Kapor joined Personal Software he was able to re-use his work on Tiny TROLL and used this approach with VisiCalc software to produce the VisiPlot package.

He promptly licensed the rights in the software to VisiCorp who marketed it at a retail price of $249.95, though of course the dealers had a 60% margin and bought it for just $100.  This still left him 37.5% royalty as a significant sum per copy, earning around $500,000.   This was a phase when VisiCorp was keen to move towards owning its own products and so it negotiated to pay Kapor $1.2 million to own VisiPlot/VisiTrend outright.

Of course he took the money.  His licence fees had been good but Kapor knew the spreadsheet authors were earning many times more than he was.  While working with VisiCorp he was fortunate enough to see the prototype IBM PC and decided to reinvest most of his windfall into developing a spreadsheet for it.

He wanted his program to have an edge and decided to create a package to be a spreadsheet, a graphics program and a word processor.  His background in meditation provided the name, Lotus; the goal of a three-in-one package gave it the brand name, Lotus 1-2-3.  The company was founded by Kapor and Jonathan Sachs with funding by Benjamin Rosen.

Lotus had the major benefit of seeing and using Context MBA before its own launch.  It was the slowness of Context MBA that led Jonathan Sachs, Kapor’s partner, to conclude that they should not include a word processor in 1-2-3, as his investigation suggested this was what added considerably to the lack of pace with Context.

As a result of the evaluation, Lotus 1-2-3 changed its thinking and decided the third element would be a database, rather than the original notion of a word processor – so spreadsheet, graphics and database it was.  The two Lotus individuals split the work in what was then a reasonably novel manner.  Kapor defined the goals and system requirements while Sachs actually wrote the software.

Kapor had by then formed a company called Micro Finance Systems and was exploring spreadsheets too.  Sachs joined him and produced a prototype spreadsheet written in the C language.  Once they acquired an IBM PC Sachs set about rewriting it in 8088 assembly language.

Sachs compared writing in C with writing in the 8088 assembly language and found it some five times faster.  The eventual outcome proved much smaller in code, so C it was to be.  He also learned that writing to the screen memory buffer of the IBM PC made the screen refresh more quickly.

These decisions were crucial as they meant Lotus 1-2-3 was optimised to the IBM PC.  Compared with VisiCalc and Context MBA it became the clear winner.

Lotus forecast that 1-2-3 would achieve sales of $1 million in its first year, but it actually achieved $54 million; not the greatest advert for someone designing and selling a forecasting software package, but one that was easily forgiven!

Read more…

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