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After more than 20 years, IBM has finally pulled the plug on Lotus 1-2-3 (1983–2014)

Once the world's most important piece of business software, it suffered a long decline

Splash screen of Lotus 123, version 2.3

Lotus 1-2-3, the computer software program that was the spreadsheet of choice for businesses in the 1980s, was born in the Boston area on January 26, 1983. It was the brainchild of Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs who had formed Lotus Development Corp. to release the software program. The two weren’t new to computer spreadsheets: Kapor was the head of development at VisiCorp, which marketed the first desktop spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, and Sachs was a computer programmer who had been transferring VisiCalc to some of the world’s first minicomputers.

Before Lotus 1-2-3, VisiCalc, which was designed for Apple II computers in 1979, dominated the desktop spreadsheet market. But IBM started running Kapor’s and Sachs’s spreadsheet program on its computers, and companies couldn’t get enough of it. They started purchasing IBM computers in droves just to get their hands on the software that combined spreadsheets, a graphics package and an early-stage database manager into one.

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The launch of Lotus 1-2-3 had disrupted the monopoly VisiCorp’s spreadsheet program was enjoying, and had set the standard for productivity applications on personal computers. By October 1983, Lotus 1-2-3 was reportedly outselling VisiCalc.

Under Kapor’s leadership Lotus Development Corp. started adding new products under its 1985, but none performed as well as the popular shining star Lotus 1-2-3. That same year, Lotus bought VisiCalc, discontinued it, and offered its customers Lotus 1-2-3 upgrades instead.

But by 1986, Lotus 1-2-3 was getting neglected when Kapor stepped down as president and CEO of the company and handed the mantle to Jim Manzi. Manzi was focusing his attention and resources away from the company’s first success and looking for its next up-and-comer. It was around this time that Bill Gates was creating his own version of a desktop spreadsheet program, and slowly Excel and Microsoft’s Office encroached on Lotus 1-2-3’s turf. By the early 1990s, Lotus 1-2-3’s position at the head of the class was usurped definitively by Microsoft Excel.

By the time IBM bought Lotus Development Corp. in July 1995 for $3.5 billion, Lotus 1-2-3 was on life support. Lotus 1-2-3’s cousin, Lotus Notes—which offered companies integrated messaging, business applications and social collaboration in one workspace—was the program that caught IBM’s eye; Lotus 1-2-3 simply tagged along because it was family.

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But even with IBM attempting to breathe new life into Lotus Development’s products, Lotus 1-2-3, once the backbone for businesses’ office productivity, couldn’t be resuscitated. IBM continued to develop Lotus’s groupware product portfolio, and packaged Lotus 1-2-3 with its suite of Lotus programs, but the spreadsheet program was already on the chopping block.

In 2012, IBM slowly started removing Lotus branding and wound down sections of the groupware portfolio. In May 2013, IBM  announced that it would no longer support Lotus 1-2-3, along with Lotus Organizer and Lotus SmartSuite. IBM told users that they had until September 2014 to get their papers in order. On September 30, IBM pulled the plug on Lotus 1-2-3. The spreadsheet program that was once the world’s most important productivity application finally went dark.

Watch this 1983 promotional video for Lotus 1-2-3: