Lotus fought the Powerlaw and the Powerlaw Won

There is an encomium to Lotus in the Boston paper today. I worked at Lotus back in the 1980s; during the era when Microsoft killed them or, if you prefer, they committed suicide. Lotus made bad choices about where to make their home. They died because they failed to pick the right answer to the multihoming problem. Of course there are plenty of other aspects to the story, but that’s its core and everything else is noise.

During that era I recall chatting with what we would now call the CTO of a company we went on to acquire. I asked him why he had decided to expend vast resources on keeping his product platform independent rather then on features for his users. This question was a lead up to a question about how he viewed what I’d now call the ‘plausible premise’ of each of the platforms he was supporting. His three
platforms were, if I correctly recall, in order of plausibility: Mac. Motif, and the Window 1.0. As a glimpse into my point about how Lotus was getting these questions wrong at the time it was a bone of contention that he didn’t have a OS/2 port.

He answer was “I have no idea which one will survive.” It’s a glimpse into how naive we were as an industry back then that this answer surprised and delighted me. It became a bit of a cliche for me. To say “Which of these platforms is going to survive.” in planning meetings was surprisingly provocative. The kind of thing that gets people to asking if you’re a team player.

Multihoming is costly. (Ben recalls at this point the misery of failing to learn a foreign language in high school.) These day, for example, it’s damn expensive to support both soap and rest APIs for your web services. You need to support both for the prosaic reason I thought the CTO would raise, i.e. to get access to the maximum number of users. But you also need to support both because you don’t know which will survive.

Most of my technically informed readers can not imagine that one or the other of those could possible die off. Holding that thought in mind you are recreating a bit of what the world looked like when somebody would float the idea that X11/Motif, or OS/2 might die off.

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