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Copyrights and wrongs

When firms abandon products - and toss away the key - users are the losers

By Simsom L. Garfinkel, 02/18/99

little more than a decade ago, Lotus Development Corp. reinvented the spreadsheet. A small group of developers at the company's Advanced Technology Group, including Pito Salas, Paul Kleppner, and Lynda Urgotis, started with the mission of making spreadsheets dramatically easier to use.

A big problem that many people have building complicated spreadsheets, they realized, was organizing the data. What should go in the horizontal rows? What should go in the vertical columns? Spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel and Lotus 1-2-3 allow users to put any number or any formula in any cell on a huge two-dimensional array. Unfortunately, for most users, that flexibility provides more power than is needed and creates a lot of confusion in the process.

A few months after moving into an empty library in Cambridge, the group had come up with a better way. Instead of making the user type seemingly meaningless formulas like ''C1=A1-B1,'' and then having to replicate these formulas throughout the spreadsheet, the group created a prototype that let the user type meaningful formulas, like ''PROFIT=PRICE-COST.'' Many cells could then be labeled as PROFIT, PRICE, or COST cells, and the formula would be applied to each one. Users might create separate PROFIT, PRICE, and COST cells for each year that they were analyzing. Or - and this was the really radical idea - they might have different PROFIT, PRICE, and COST cells for different regions and for different years, creating a three-dimensional spreadsheet. The user might then add a fourth dimension, to investigate business scenarios, and a fifth dimension, to look at products.

Salas took a demo of his ''Modeler'' program on tour to some of Lotus's largest accounts in the spring of 1987 and got rave reviews. In September 1988 the company committed to the project, code-named ''Back Bay.'' The following month Steve Jobs visited the company and persuaded Lotus management to put Back Bay on Jobs's new computer, a black magnesium machine called the Nextcube. The product, which debuted in February 1991, was called Lotus Improv.

At this point, the story is better known. Jobs didn't do too well with Next: He never sold more than 100,000 of the black computers. So in 1992 Lotus ported Improv to Microsoft Windows 3.1. But it didn't do too well there, either. According to Kate Monaghan, a spokeswoman for Lotus, ''Improv won numerous awards as an innovative spreadsheet tool but was discontinued in April 1996 due to low sales. Customers had a hard time deciding between 1-2-3 or Improv and so stuck with 1-2-3, the industry standard.''

Today the standard is no longer 1-2-3: it's Microsoft Excel. While Excel has a few of the features of Improv, it lacks the fundamental core.

I didn't really think much about Excel's shortcomings until a few months ago, when I started trying to build a series of extremely complicated Excel spreadsheets. I wanted to chart the sales of several products over time, exploring different economic and pricing scenarios. Then I wanted to look at different funding scenarios. That's five dimensions right there.

I am one of the few people who had a Next machine back in 1992, and I got to be pretty skilled at using Improv. So after spinning my wheels with Excel and buying more than $100 worth of books that promised to solve my problems, but delivered far less, I started hunting on the Internet. My Holy Grail was a 1993 copy of Lotus Improv 2.0 for Windows 3.1. After a lot of searching I found somebody who had an old copy, and I bought it for $75. I'm pleased to report that the program runs like a champ under Windows '98.

Unfortunately, that's the end of the story. I'm legally prohibited from making copies of Improv for my friends and coworkers. Improv is protected by copyright, and even though Lotus no longer sells or supports the product, that protection still holds. This is a kind of crime against society.

The purpose of copyrights is to give authors protection for their intellectual works, so that they will be motivated to produce new ones. It is a bargain between society and the inventor. If a company reneges on its side of the bargain - and in the case of Improv, Lotus surely has - the works protected by copyright should become public property. That is, I think that they should go into the public domain.

The implications of this argument go far beyond Improv. Dozens of software publishers have gone out of business and taken their wares with them. Just imagine what the world would be like if instead of killing their products, these companies had been forced to release them into the public domain. Today there would be more than a dozen free word processors and spreadsheets available for Windows, giving Microsoft a real run for its money. And if the companies had been compelled to release the source code for these products as well, then enterprising hobbyists would have ported these applications to the Linux operating system.

One of the prime offenders in this world of dead software is Apple, which has mothballed the Newton and all but given up on the Nextstep operating systems. Ultimately, it would probably be in the best interest of both Apple's shareholders and society as a whole for companies like Lotus and Improv to release their failed products to the public.

There is a simple reason they do not: If the public did a better job with the software, it would prove that these products died because of mismanagement, not because of the competitive environment.

This story ran on page C04 of the Boston Globe on 02/18/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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