The Wall Street Journal article 40 Years Later, Lessons From the Rise and Quick Decline of the First ‘Killer App’ subtitled Remember VisiCalc, the world’s first spreadsheet? Today’s tech giants do, and that is why they buy up and invest in potential competitive threats is accurate as far as it goes, but misses two very important points.
I joined Software Arts in 1980, the year after it launched VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. And I was there when Mitch Kapor’s Lotus 1-2-3 for the IBM PC became the standard spreadsheet in business, until it too was eclipsed, this time by Microsoft Excel, now the long standing spreadsheet standard.
Most of the founders I work with can’t remember VisiCalc because they weren’t even born 40 years ago! I find I have to be very careful in the examples I give from my 39 years in the tech industry, as for example I found out the hard way that no one in my mentorship cohort has even heard of Alan Kay, esteemed computer scientist. So if you are up for learning a bit of personal computer history, read the WSJ article on how VisiCalc was developed for the Apple II and by the time it was ported to the IBM PC which took over the business computing market, it had been virtually totally replaced by Lotus 1-2-3. There were a lot of mistakes made at Software Arts, but I’m going to focus on only two of them.
While Christopher Mims gives Mitch full credit for going from VisiCalc’s Product Manager at what was then called Personal Software, to being king of the personal software marketplace with Lotus 1-2-3, he leaves out very important experience Mitch had which drove the success of 1-2-3. Mitch was quick to realize that VisiCalc users wanted to be able to plot graphs of their spreadsheet models. He went on to develop a program called VisiTrend/VisiPlot that imported VisiCalc files and created a variety of charts and graphs. He later sold it to Personal Software. Graphing became the “2” of 1-2-3 and helped it become the powerhouse of spreadsheets (#3 was a flat file database). Mitch was no novice in the personal computer industry having created two programs of note before VisiTrend/VisiPlot: Tiny Troll, a graphics and statistics program, and Executive Briefing System. While neither was a killer app, he gained vital experience in user experience design and graphics, his contribution to 1-2-3, which was programmed by Jonathan Sachs. Software Arts never added graphing to VisiCalc because it was too busy developing new programs, like TK!Solver, rather than learning from VisiTrend – nor by buying it, as Personal Software did.
The meta point that Mims misses entirely is my saying, “When the platforms change, the players change.” I doubt that is original with me, but I don’t know who said it first. Be that as it may, it has proven true over the past 40 years. Microsoft was the early leader when personal computers were called “microcomputers” as it developed the killer app for the Altair, the first microcomputer, by porting the BASIC language to it. That lead to a significant business for Microsoft in developing programming languages for the personal computers like the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Commodore Pet.
VisiCalc was the king of the first true platform, the personal computers that succeeded the Altair and knocked Microsoft out of its leadership position by being surpassed by Lotus Development Corporation.
But Microsoft drove the next business software platform by creating Windows for PCs, thus providing the graphic user interface for the IBM PC and its many clones. Mitch and Lotus missed this opportunity, as it was too busy developing 1-2-3 for IBM’s operating system, OS/2 which proved to be a loser, as Microsoft totally took over the operating system market with Windows. The platform change from DOS to Windows left many developers behind. Microsoft rode Excel, which it had developed specifically for Windows, to overtake Lotus as the world’ biggest software maker.
But the platforms changed once again when Apple unleashed the iPhone. But Steve Balmer, then Microsoft CEO ridiculed the iPhone, as did Bill Gates. Thus Microsoft totally missed the platform change to mobile, where Google now dominates by volume, though Apple dominates by revenues. Microsoft totally gave up on their mobile software development efforts when it became clear that they would be a distant number three to Google and Apple, at best.
And why did Mark Zuckerberg acquire Oculus for $2 million dollars before it had even shipped a product? Because he was afraid the next platform would be virtual reality (VR) and he didn’t want to miss that platform change as Software Arts, Lotus, and Microsoft had missed the previous platform changes.
My estimation is that VR will not become the next platform, but perhaps AR in the form of stylish glasses may make an impact. Wearables seem the most likely next platform for individuals. What’s next in terms of business and social platforms – your guess is likely better than mine.