Lotus Improv

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Lotus Improv was a spreadsheet program from Lotus Development that attempted to re-define the way a spreadsheet should work.



The original spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, was based on the idea of replicating existing spreadsheets — a sheet of paper with lines on it — on the computer and then adding automatic updating. From that point on almost all other spreadsheets used the basic VisiCalc concept. Vendors competed primarily on the number of cells and calculation speed. This was true even of Lotus's own Lotus 1-2-3, whose success is based almost entirely on the fact that it ran on the IBM PC and was faster and had more cells than VisiCalc.

Lotus set up an advanced technology group in 1986. One of their initial tasks was to see if they could simplify the task of setting up a spreadsheet. Once they were up and running sheets were simple to use, but many users found it very difficult to imagine what the sheet needed to look like in order to get started. After a few months of studying existing real-world examples, it became clear that the data, views of that data, and the formulas that acted on that data were very separate concepts. Yet in every case, the existing spreadsheet programs required the user to type all of these items into the same (typically single) sheet's cells. This led to considerable confusion, because it's not obvious which cells hold what sort of data, is this cell an input value that is used elsewhere? Is it an intermediate value used for a calculation? Perhaps it is an output value useful only to the end users? There's no way to know.

The concepts of Lotus Improv revolved around the concept of separating the three parts — data, views, and formulas.

Actually implementing these ideas on the initial target OS/2 platform turned out to be fairly difficult. It was at about this time that Steve Jobs (at NeXT at the time) visited and gave them one of the new NeXT computers. Pito Salas started the project to develop Improv for NeXT under the code-name BackBay, the name of a neighborhood in Boston. Jobs clearly "got it", and became one of the product's biggest supporters and critics, and many of the ideas that appeared in the final product were at his urging. Improv was so popular that it became one of the few killer apps on the NeXT platform, and machines started showing up in financial offices in the thousands. After release on the NeXT (originally code named "Fluffy Bunny", but later known as "Black Marlin") attempts were made to port to Windows ("Blue Marlin") and Macintosh ("Red Marlin"). The APIs and programming language for NeXTSTEP were sufficiently different from the state-of-the-art on Windows and Macintosh system software that porting was very difficult.

A version for Windows eventually shipped in 1993, but here it faced the additional problem in that it competed directly with 1-2-3, and thus had to overcome a corporate resistance to change. Perhaps the biggest problem for Improv was the fact that it was so different — customers were so used to the way spreadsheets worked that no one actually used Improv. Lotus eventually gave up on the product.

A number of clones of Improv quickly appeared. Most of these were directed towards the financial market, including Quantrix, which continues to be sold today.

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