Lotus Smartsuite

The first time I encountered the name Lotus was in my final few months in Iscor when one of my people used the WK1 version of 1-2-3 to produce a graph for a report. At the time I did not realise how useful this piece of software could be, and it did not affect my job at the time.

This all changed when I joined Allied Steel & Wire, and I started to use 1-2-3 version WK2 as well as one of the early versions of Freelance, the one concentrating more on making technical drawings rather than presentations. Whoever decided to replace Samna as the word processor for our department chose WordPerfect instead of Lotus’s AmiPro, presumably because they considered it the better product.

A few years later, when we were making the transition from Lotus’s WK4 to WK5, we also had a newbie spreadsheet application installed next to 1-2-3 called Excel. It boasted that in its new version it now had tabs – something 1-2-3 already had since days immemorial. It didn’t feel like there was any reason to switch, and I never bothered to familiarise myself with Excel.

When at the Contistretch department I saw one of the managers use Lotus Organiser, and thought it was a rather nifty application for keeping people’s contact details within easy reach, as well as visualising appointments in your diary. However, it was only at Tinplate R&D that I met all the Lotus applications as part of their Smartsuite: 1-2-3, AmiPro, Freelance, Approach and Organiser. Shortly after AmiPro was replaced by WordPro in the 1997 version of Smartsuite. At the time WordPro was light years ahead of Microsoft’s Word, something that still held true for the next ten or so years, long after IBM had stopped developing new versions, and had by then even stopped supporting it.

Still, we continued using Smartsuite throughout our British Steel, and I remember helping out with the redundancy letters in Ebbw Vale by setting up a template in WordPro and linking it up with an Approach database containing the details of each person then working there. Even the primitive version of traffic lights we developed in the final year followed the Smartsuite route: a number of Focus Six queries were downloaded as WK1 spreadsheets, which could then be linked with a Freelance presentation to produce the graphs for our Friday afternoon traffic light meetings.

I assume Microsoft Office must have been around at the time, but it only started to become the preferred standard after we merged with Hoogovens, since they had been taken the Microsoft route at an earlier stage. Still I continued to use Smartsuite in preference to Office, and whenever someone said “you’re an IT boffin, can you help me out with Excel?”, I had to disappoint them, stating I only had a very basic knowledge of Excel. After all, if you have the power of databases that can be channeled through a webpage, who needs spreadsheets ?

My problem started when I had to have my PC replaced, and it no longer contained Smartsuite – meaning that I had to install an unauthorised version myself by using my own Smartsuite Millennium edition disks. Still, when people saw the Smartsuite top bar (which I put to good use to store my list of telephone numbers), they just assumed I was one of the last people who still had it installed as part of the official roll-out.

I must admit that I’ve never understood how Lotus Smartsuite lost out to Microsoft Office, since the latter was initially clearly the inferior product. It must have had something to do with Lotus being taken over by IBM, following which the impetus to produce new products in the suite ready for the new opportunities of the internet seemed to have petered out. Maybe Lotus just didn’t have the cash for new developments, and IBM was not seeing it as their core business ?

Whatever the case, the result was that Microsoft had the playing field to itself, and came to dominate the Office software sector for years to come. In my opinion that’s a bit like the position of the Lada amongst cars in the old Soviet Union: it wasn’t the bestseller because it was so good, but because there wasn’t much of an alternative.

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