Lotus: Farewell to a Once-Great Tech Brand

The company which brought us 1-2-3 in the 1980s has been a part of IBM since 1995. And now Big Blue appears to be ready to retire the brand.

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A Lotus 1-2-3 screenshot, from back in the golden age of DOS software

Wolfgang Gruener of Tom’s Hardware alerted me to a bit of news that, while minor, has left me in a wistful mood. IBM is planning to remove the Lotus branding from its Notes and Domino workgroup products. It’s the apparent end of Lotus, a brand which was launched in 1982 with the 1-2-3 spreadsheet, the most important productivity application of its era.

It’s tough to remember now, but in the period before Microsoft Office came along, it was Lotus, not Microsoft, that was synonymous with office software. Lotus Development Corporation, which Mitch Kapor founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had a ginormous cash cow in 1-2-3, a product which was so popular that companies bought fleets of IBM PCs just to run it.

Lotus cranked out (and sometimes acquired) an array of apps: Approach, cc:Mail, Hal, Improv, Jazz, Manuscript, Magellan, Organizer, Symphony and many more. They weren’t always successful — in fact, many of them came and went rather quickly — but the company had a really good track record when it came to releasing stuff that was inventive and interesting.

I cheerfully confess to having a pro-Lotus bias. I lived in Boston during the brand’s boom years in the 1980s, an era in which the Boston area was as important to the PC revolution as Silicon Valley was — and Lotus was the single most significant Boston-based tech company. Then in 1994 and 1995, I was an editor at PC World Lotus Edition, a special version of PC World with extra pages devoted entirely to Lotus products, amounting to a magazine-within-the-magazine.

By the mid-1990s, it was reasonably obvious that Microsoft Office was going to slaughter the famous stand-alone productivity packages of the DOS days — not just 1-2-3, but also dBASE, Harvard Graphics, WordPerfect and others. Lotus was smart enough to get into another, nascent business: workgroup software. Notes turned out to be a big deal, and led to IBM buying the company in 1995 for $3.5 billion. And Notes is still with us today, even though Microsoft ended up dominating that market too, with Outlook and Exchange.

But you know what? I worked at a company that was standardized on Notes for years, and never thought it lived up to the hallowed Lotus name. It was a fabulous product if you were an IT person, but so poorly designed from a productivity standpoint that I came to loathe it. When I left it behind, I swear that my blood pressure improved.

So the Lotus which is now on its way out is a dim reflection of its former self. It isn’t the great Lotus, or my Lotus. Truth to tell, I wasn’t even positive it was still extant. Even so, I’m sorry to think about the mighty brand disappearing altogether.

Then again, maybe it won’t — it’s hard to snuff all the life out of a once-powerful name, no matter how far it’s fallen. IBM hasn’t updated 1-2-3 in well over a decade, but it’ll sell you a copy today. The wonderfully archaic-sounding Lotus 1-2-3 Millennium Edition 9.8 goes for a mere $342. I wonder if anyone ever buys it, and if so, why?