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The Lost Apps of the 80s (scripting.com)
150 points by ingve 9 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 119 comments





People who weren't alive at the time may not appreciate how different the commercial app ecosystem was: how many more options, how much less concentrated.

Here is a PC Magazine cover from 1988: https://archive.org/details/PC-Mag-1988-02-29. It boasts a review of 55 different word processors. All of them would have been commercial; none of it was free, let alone open-source.

It wasn't just word processors. Here is a different cover: https://archive.org/details/PC-Mag-1988-05-17. It boasts tests of 43 different consumer-level database products. And magazine covers like these two weren't extraordinary.


If you compare word processors to note taking apps of today which I think are very equivalent to the same use you'll find more than 55 tools. Word processors belong to an era where the computer replaced the typewriter and it's not needed any more these days. You can find commercial, free or open source note taking apps that are local or cloud based and offer a huge variety of features.

"If you compare word processors to note taking apps of today which I think are very equivalent to the same use"

Are they really equivalent though? A word processor - with multi-page documents, pagination, rich formatting and layout, footnotes, headers, footers, ToC (table of contents) and so much more - seems a magnitude greater than simply a note-taking app.

I can understand why many developers might tackle a simple note app (or a simple blog generator, or static site generator). But a word processor feels like a much more complex beast.


All of that complexity has been replaced by sync (e.g., collaborative editing as one example of). Sync is the problem of our era and it branches out in many directions (e.g., infinitely restorable, branching, searchable history).

In general commercial note-taking apps are not at all simple; they have similar features to those you named. Also consider that automatic syncing across devices (at least, if not also across platforms) is practically a sine qua non, which is complex it its own right.

I do wonder whether note-taking apps will condense over time too though, as our phones continue to become bigger extensions of our intellectual activity.

You could likely more than 55 open source text editors too. I could name at least 15 offhand, I think.

That's a good comparison also to the word processors of the 80's.

Those annual PC Magazine Best Printer of 19XX that weighed the same as a tome - but they really tested in depth - now we just go to the local PC store and buy a crappy $99 inkjet on special from HP/Epson or Canon.

To be fair, the crappy $99 inkjet these days is a much better machine than even 10 years ago. I got mine for free locally because the market is so saturated (used at least), which is great for the consumer. It has a scanner. It can connect to my computer or my cell phone wirelessly. I don't have to turn it on, feed in paper, and open some flaps or anything like that before use to ensure the ink doesn't dry out when I'm not printing. I just hit print on my device and it fires up in the next room from its sleep state. Putting in just the black ink turned it on black ink only mode automatically, my old inkjets on the other hand would moan about missing some colors, or protest by doing strange things like printing out a black and white document using only the yellow ink on the white page. It's also remarkably quiet compared to my ancient inkjets, which made my home sound like a machine shop when I printed out a few pages. Time will tell how it holds up over the years, but barring anything catastrophic, printing might now be a solved thing for me.

Exactly. I was recently considering a purchase of an ink jet printer for a specific purpose that requires very high black ink resolution. (I already have a laser printer, but its real resolution is 1200dpi). It was next to impossible to find the real black ink specs of few cheap printers available. Numbers like 5000dpi are being thrown around, but it is impossible to find out what they actually mean before you buy and test the product by yourself.

The market became commodified and the need to test to find adequate products evaporated.

It was certainly a more creative time, at a time of expensive computers and restricted resources

It was a time of evolutionary explosion. And while I don't miss a lot of the aspects of it, it is certainly nostalgic in a lot of ways

(though I'm not the type to play with 80s hardware - emulators are more practical)

Oh and about the "none of it was free" well ;)


God, flipping through those magazines brings a tear of nostalgia to my eye. Those were such different days.

I still use microEmacs, which floated around the intertoobs in the 1980s. Of course, I've modified it substantially over the years, most recently adding color syntax highlighting and Unicode.

D version:

https://github.com/DigitalMars/med

C version:

https://github.com/DigitalMars/me

The "extension language" is it's so easy to just add some code and recompile it, there's no point in adding an extension language.

I like microEmacs a lot because I can use it remotely over a tty interface.


>The "extension language" is it's so easy to just add some code and recompile it ... there's no point in adding an extension language.

Missed a "if you're a major programming language creator and profficient with parsers and compilers since the 80s" between these two parts of the sentence...


I invite you to take a look at the source code and the implementation of some of the commands (there's one function per command), and see how easy it is.

But why use a μEmacs when you can use actual Emacs, with its comprehensive scriptability? μEmacsen made sense on older platforms like CP/M and MS-DOG, but they're pointless today.

I've used real Emacs in the past. I scripted extensions to it. It turns out that just adding code to microEmacs isn't any harder than scripting.

I often use zile, a modern mini-Emacs for quick editing jobs because it starts up instantly (yes, I know you can achieve similar start up times using the client/server feature of Emacs, but that always seems more work than it's worth).

MicroEmacs compiles to less than 100K, and it starts instantly.

Visual Studio clunks and grinds its way to opening, and I find I'm reluctant to exit it because it's slow to exit, too.


Personally I'm a huge fan of microemacsen as they allow me to run a friendly editor on practically any hardware and my muscle memory is so habituated to Emacs key bindings I'm less productive with anything else.

I use mg because it's super fast

mg also happens to ship with OpenBSD, which is handy for tweaking things (especially on new installations prior to me being able to install Emacs locally or remote in via Tramp).

For me it is a lot about changing expectations. I used to use ecco pro for my notetaking. I loved it, it was very powerful and focused and it let me capture my ideas very effectively. Today I use onenote, which as an outliner sort of sucks.

Why did I move from ecco pro to onenote? Because I want something that automatically syncs to all my devices, easily searches across a decade of notes and lets me get things done from my phone. Onenote’s low quality outline authoring experience is trumped by its networking features.

This for me is the key: we expect tools to live on the network. All those apps of old, they were based around files, their business models were based around buying files, and they targeted one form factor and often only one OS. We need tools based around networks, not files, that target every form factor and every OS, but doing that costs a lot of money to rent servers and build frontends, and that means we get locked in saas products. Tons of saas products, all solving the same set of problems on the network but doing it through a web interface because it allows them to write once and run everywhere.

What would really help is a free substrate for networked open source products. If you could deploy something cloud-native without having to pay for servers, you’d see more community and native apps and less web saas in the productivity tools space.


> This for me is the key: we expect tools to live on the network. All those apps of old, they were based around files

I agree and it's why I'm a fan of apps that sync data via something like Dropbox or Google Drive. The application can still be file based and the developer doesn't have to run servers. There are the obvious limitations, but for personal use it works pretty well.


Yes, absolutely.

I have to mention Joplin here, which became my note-taking app after a lot of research. There are certainly more powerful apps, but Joplin is open source, runs on all devices, (Windows, Linux, Android and iOS in my case), syncs data via Nextcloud or Dropbox, and supports E2E-encryption. It also allows inserting images directly into the notes, which I found cumbersome with other markdown-based note apps.

The developer is also very active and adds useful features and bugfixes very regularly. Definitely worth the few bucks I donate every month.

https://joplinapp.org/


I second that mention. I use it across Linux, macOS, Windows, both in terminal mode and in GUI. Very flexible, Markdown friendly. I have my editor of choice (vim) which launches inside the terminal version. You can define which editor you wish to use if you don't like the included editing.

Quick hypothesis on PIMs/editors/etc, from someone who worked on a PIM in the late 1980s and who misses outliners and others- the biggest "unimagined" change is from personal information management to hive-mind information management (via search engines).

It used to be that everyone had to maintain their own personal "library"- now this activity is relegated to cranks and luddites. The second order effect is a change in demand for personal information authoring/management/etc.

A small number of tools, like Scrivener, that may have been competitive in the 1980s, have a market today. The idea of an isolated, focused, non-networked writing environment, surviving like the crocodile.

I don't have a hypothesis for the lack of innovation in the spreadsheet space. The incentives are certainly there. Literally billions/trillions of dollars of assets are subjected to all kinds of spreadsheet risk. Yet that workflow persists, and small and large businesses that attempt to tackle it rise and fall by the wayside.


People build things with Excel because they already have it installed on their office computers. They don't have to file an expense report to pay for a license. They don't have to wrangle IT, beg their manager, or fight with the security team for permission to get it installed.

It doesn't hurt that a wide variety of white-collar workers are already familiar with Excel and stand to gain a great deal of leverage across their job with every small investment in learning about its features, but the incumbent advantage of Excel being universally available, without question or complaint, cannot be overstated.


The problem with any of the old 'killer applications' like spreadsheets is that the network effect now dominates the productivity market.[1] So you'd spend most of your energy on trying to maintain compatibility and feature parity with an application that users are very resistant to moving away from. It's a pretty bad risk/reward unless you have a use case with a 10x (or more) value proposition.

[1] Back when businesses were mainly concerned with internal document sharing it wasn't as much of an issue. But as that expanded to marking up documents with outside lawyers, accountants etc that changed quickly. When the Internet happened for the masses in the late 90's it was game over for most of the competition.


This is a great insight, but there's a third angle too: a lot of these 80s tools assumed you'd invest in them, and not just in cash: you'd give them a lot of time and attention and learning and hence reap expert-user rewards. The world simply isn't like that now, except in niches.

And if you're niche, you can't establish a new file format in a networked world, so you end up having to be interoperable, with markdown in text or xls for spreadsheets. And if you're interoperable, you end up shrinking your market even further: people your users are sharing with don't need to use you.

You really can't build much of a moat on "powerful UX that boils down to a sharable file format". The only way to make space for yourself then is to become a platform in your own right (see emacs/vscode etc).

And what prevents spreadsheets becoming a platform? The install base of Excel, for a kickoff, but also the enormous limitations of csv on the other hand.

In short, the conditions that allowed all those 1980s applications to flourish – bespoke file formats, invested users, no truly dominant players, less networked sharing - have all gone. And so have the apps.


The desktop app scene is so different today with more and more apps moving to SaaS. In the 90s, they were so many interesting and well-made desktop apps that were full of interesting ideas. Lotus Improv was certainly one of them. ( A 1990 video demonstration can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsYsZmhnXR4 )

Lotus Word Pro also took a refreshingly different UI approach to MS Word. Long before Microsoft introduced the Office 'ribbon', Lotus Word Pro essentially had the same idea with their floated tabbed property box. The low resolution of screens at the time meant the design of the property box was a bit cramped. But it was still much better designed and organised than the Office 'ribbon' that would come later. See the Lotus Word Pro example below:

https://youtu.be/svijgsb2iLs?t=463


WordPro was awesome. It came on my mom's ThinkPad back in the mid-90s (along with an optional partition of OS/2 that I immediately removed to make more room for Windows, and then restored, and then removed, each a half-dozen times), and I initially hated it because it wasn't WordPerfect, but I soon grew to really appreciate how carefully thought out their entire approach was. In my opinion, WordPro (and the other modern apps in that suite, notably not including 1-2-3) were just a great example of how really doing something right for the GUI was fundamentally different from doing it right for the CLI.

Somewhere, in my office, is still a CD with Lotus 96 on it, but I've had no real desire to reinstall it in a VM.


It's weird to see the term "App" in relation to anything before iOS era. Back then such software used to be mostly called applications or just programs. [1]

[1] https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=app%2Ccomputer...


I definitely remember hearing the phrase "killer app" plenty of times in the early 2000s, and Macworld definitely shortened "application" to "app" frequently in the late 90s and early 2000s.

I heard app the first time in connection with "killer app", before I only remember the term "program". If my memory serves me right I heard "killer app" the first time in the late 90s


RISC OS was using the term App from around 1987 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RISC_OS), to describe an executable collection of files wrapped up in a folder. The folder had to start with a "!" to distinguish it as an app rather than a standard folder.

It’s weird. They were called programs. Startups were called businesses.

I find it weird how generations need to change words. I guess Startup was new, and unconventional? For a few seconds they were? Then they got real slick with MBA’s?


It's good, it shows that the newer generation is invested in the same things, and they want to build their own culture. However, i m afraid the "app" culture is all about marketing, addictiveness and locking-in users, not about making faster bicycles for the mind

NeXTstep applications (and by extension macOS, iOS) have been directories (bundles) with the extension ".app" since at least 1988.

Yeah now even microsoft has renamed "programs" to "apps" in windows. On the one hand it s bad because they are all programs made by programmers who know programming, and it's all that people need to know. OTOH , it's kinda good that the status of mobile apps is equated with ordinary desktop apps, because it makes users realize that their walled garden is needlessly walled.

Microsoft is inconsistent with this. At one point, based on my understanding, "programs" meant traditional Windows apps and "apps" meant those "Modern" Windows 8 apps that they tried to foist on us. Then, at some point, it seems "apps" came to mean any application. Of course, Microsoft hasn't had consistency for a long time.

In some ways, I miss the Microsoft of the 80s and 90s. Sure, they were totally evil, but at least they made good UIs.


Ben Evans has thought about this: https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2015/5/21/office-mes...

I could quote at length but basically for most people there are now better ways of doing work than using word processors and spreadsheets.


These apps have been "lost" for one single reason: they weren't FLOSS. There's plenty of software written in the 1980s that has been maintained since and is used today on modern platforms, because its code was made available under a suitable license. Proprietary software is a dead end, and proprietary online services only more so.

Nah, that's missing the point. While FLOSS products have a survivability advantage it's not like we see a high level of usage of diverse FLOSS productivity apps across the user universe. The authors are more talking about why we don't see more varieties of software in the same category regularly emerging and seeing adoption.

Other commenters have it right I think- network effects drive up the cost of not being on the dominant software. I also think that the security and privacy aspect plays a huge part too- it's one thing to install software sold by a retailer you trust in a non-networked computer, it's another to do so directly from a random website on an always on networked computer.


Photoshop, Excel, Word, Illustrator, PowerPoint, Cubase?

Whenever this comes up, I always ask, even though I can anticipate the answer:

has anyone cloned Lotus Improv, either literally or ideologically? The closest thing I've used recently that was close was probably Airtable, but that's more an iterative improvement on FileMaker/Access, with a web focus, than really a competitor to Improv. There also used to be a Java desktop app, but it wasn't targeted for casual desktop use, and I've long since forgotten its name.


Flexisheet was created to be a clone of Improv for Gnustep, but it was abandoned long ago. You could compiled the source.

https://flexisheet-orphans.blogspot.com/2006/10/circa-2002-l...

Sourcecode : https://github.com/gnustep/gap/tree/master/user-apps/FlexiSh...

Review of alternatives: https://arstechnica.com/civis/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=546563


Improv was protected by patents, which was a complicating factor. That said, there were a bunch of implementations (already mentioned), and the capability was added to Excel and other spreadsheets.

How "cloned" do you want?

as far as I know Quantrix Modeler https://quantrix.com/products/quantrix-modeler/ started as a clone and has continued on with the same idea, though by now I assume it's accreted enough bells and whistles to be just barely recognizable.

ETA: also it's 2.5 grand a seat so...


Aha! Yeah, that's the Java GUI client I mentioned. But yes, $2500 a seat is a bit more than I would like to pay for my use case. :)

(I'm not saying it's Not Worth That, but I definitely would not get back my investment for what I use spreadsheets for.)


> $2500 a seat is a bit more than I would like to pay for my use case.

This is big part of why the application market place consolidated and dried up. I peeked at the PC mag word processor roundup that was posted in this thread, and one thing that struck my eye was that Word and WP cost like $450-$495 in 80s dollars, which is about $1000 in todays dollars. Its pretty hard to imagine anyone paying $1k for a word processor alone these days. And in that scale $2.5k for a spreadsheet doesn't seem all that preposterous. Also if the high-end software cost that much, it would leave more room in the lower end for smaller software to compete.


I’m working on https://inflex.io/ which can achieve the data / logic separation of Improv, by putting functions in cells. But Improv isn’t an inspiration. Inflex is certainly closer to it than Airtable though.

Odessa Helix was really good, a combination spreadsheet and database, and the extensive the scripting language was pretty much straight HyperTalk (AppleScript).

Odesta Helix and Double Helix were graphical programming databases. The early versions for the Macintosh were... interesting to design databases with. QSA Toolworks continues to sell versions of Helix today. https://www.qsatoolworks.com/ Here is a screenshot of the original design interface. Retro-future! https://www.qsatoolworks.com/ee/marketing/museum/images/1984... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helix_(database)

Thanks!

I was quite wrong in my previous comment; a quick scan of The Macintosh Garden reminds me I was programming in Wingz, a really nice macro host.

https://macintoshgarden.org/apps/wingz


I'm actually missing working OLE (Object Linking and Embedding). I used to like it in MS Works in the 90ies: I could insert an area from a Works spreadsheet into a Works document and have it auto-update (you could choose if it should link the data or copy it.)

I works perfectly fine today in Windows applications like Office.

Sadly nobody has figured out something like OLE for the web - cut and paste is a hit and miss affair.

Within the context of the Microsoft-verse, Fluid Framework (https://fluidframework.com) is supposed to be solving similar problems in web apps, although I haven't personally played with it.

The XML-based surface syntax for HTML5 can seamlessly embed data from arbitrary XML namespaces. It's just a matter of supporting this feature in the browser.

Google Docs does this.

Right it was very powerful. We can do something similar with frames or other embedding strategies on the web.

The one from back then I really liked was qedit. Looks like this is it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_SemWare_Editor

I had a heavy macro-based workflow worked out, but could not really replicate the whole thing in other editors.


I wonder if Ozzie considers Groove to be one of the products he expended energy on and failed. From my perspective it seemed to actually be succeeding as a deeply network-aware thick client for collaborative knowledge work when Microsoft acquired it and killed it off. Or if not outright killed it, then managed it to death by strapping it to the SharePoint boat anchor. I wouldn't count that as a failure per-se. It didn't succeed, but wasn't really given the chance to do so, which seemed to be what Microsoft wanted to get out of the transaction.

Undeniably the product failed commercially. By the time we decided to sell the company, the product was doing ~20M+ of revenue but on a low growth rate, after having gone through ~140M of capital with (not unreasonable) investor expectations of unicorn-like returns.

That said, I absolutely loved Groove the product and Groove the team. It was a dapp with a wonderfully-usable interface, built on a pure P2P blockchain-like infrastructure that achieved distributed consensus for generalized transactions.

It had an extremely loyal following in the NGO and GOV space. They "got it" as to the unique benefits of a secure end-to-end encrypted system for small team collaboration.

But the enterprise and consumers chose centralization as the winning architecture, and the rest is history.


> Undeniably the product failed commercially. By the time we decided to sell the company, the product was doing ~20M+ of revenue but on a low growth rate, after having gone through ~140M of capital with (not unreasonable) investor expectations of unicorn-like returns.

Groove's revenue exceeded expenditures, though, right? Or could have? I'm not sure it was reasonable to expect success at that scale for an entirely novel class of application in an era where startup investments were still expected to 'mature' only after about a decade or more. Groove was only ~8 years old, and 1.0 had been released ~6 years prior.

> But the enterprise and consumers chose centralization as the winning architecture, and the rest is history.

As I recall, around 2.x you were more-or-less switching from a distributed architecture to a decentralized one, but... your point is taken. I suppose I should admire that you saw the writing on the wall as soon as you did.

The wheel keeps turning though, and I wonder if another stab at the idea could succeed today. Certainly the various risks of centralization are much more apparent, and to a broader audience, now.


Perhaps. Hard to say. The dev team was large by necessity, but the GTM was far too large because we hadn't come to terms with giving up on enterprise and individual sales. Had we focused exclusively on public sector and hunkered down we MAY have been able to be profitable on an operational basis. But we would have had to recap and get existing investors to write it off at a time when the board had two offers on the table that returned some value to investors. Not straightforward.

Today it could almost certainly be built MUCH more economically - likely on the not-dissimilar and rich/mature matrix.org infra at the bottom, and using Electron on top.

And I would sell not to enterprises nor to decentralization zealots: I'd build a small focused GTM org focused on public sector and those who will need to collaborate when trying to deal with an APT.


> [T]hose who will need to collaborate when trying to deal with an APT.

Well, that's certainly a growing market segment, both domestically and internationally. It is starting to feel like there may soon not be anyone left who doesn't have to deal with an APT, if only as collateral damage.

Thanks for engaging!


what does APT mean in this context? thank you!

I think OneDrive had its origins in Groove back in the day.

No, SkyDrive was always centralized server-side without any of the conflict resolution coauth concepts that Groove had. It was a completely separate project.

What about OneDrive For Business? I recall the executable was, confusingly, Groove.exe for quite a long time.

As I recall, OneDrive for Business had absolutely nothing in common with OneDrive except that marketing in all their wisdom decided to throw that name on it for maximum confusion (a very popular technique at Microsoft - see also Skype for Business). I don't know its history, but assuming it evolved out of some Sharepoint product it wouldn't surprise me if it had some Groove DNA.

> a very popular technique at Microsoft

Indeed. See also: Surface...everything.


And slapping .net on everything.

That's where I got the impression from.

Borland Sidekick. The productivity software small enough to hide in your system. These days productivity software run under Electron.

macOS seems to have the healthiest ecosystem today. Small developers are still supporting themselves by selling software. Even there though, I'm not sure how sustainable it is these days.

The walled garden and app store seems to work in their favor then. Microsoft saw that 30% cut that Apple got and decided to throw everything good away in an attempt to get that for themselves. It apparently never occurred to them that this wasn't something you could just bolt onto an ecosystem that went all the way back to the 1980s.

>Now, we don't have choice. [...] I have to use their editors

Only for the submission. You can write externally. There used to be "It's All Text" before Firefox's extensions got gutted, which automated that copying. I wonder where that lies on their list of "apps" to edit with.


> before Firefox's extensions got gutted

You might like to take a look at Waterfox. It's a fork of the last pre-Quantum of Firefox, with frequent security update releases (roughly every 8 weeks), that still runs XUL extensions.

It's my default browser since Firefox Quantum, because recent Firefox versions simply can't do all the customisations I like — such as a vertical tab bar combined with a flat bookmarks bar, a smart download manager in a tab, and so on.


> Also there should be networked spreadsheets. And since it's 40 years later, there should be products we never imagined in the 80s. They aren't there.

That's linear thinking. Computer science peaked in the 80s-90s. There arent bold new ideas to add, just incremental progress. Today it's all about polishing and making things more addictive in order to make the highest profit. Rounded corner screens for displaying slightly improved versions of newsgroups (facebook), IRC (slack/discord), BBS (google)... I can't think of a new mode of communication invented in the last decades. One could say video, but live TV existed before. Scaling up is incremental. Right here, HN is barely different than newsgroups. If change had been non-incremental , we d be dismissing HN as something that only crazy people do (the equivalent of riding a horse to work)


> One could say video, but live TV existed before.

Okay but, could anyone broadcast on TV? Could anyone have their own TV channel?

TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch... preceded by JustinTV, Vine, Periscope.

It's a different ballgame. There's whole new revenue streams, individual content creators are collectively making a ton of money . Consumers are directly (or nearly directly) compensating creators in many cases (e.g. Twitch) unlike before.


That is still just improvement on what's already available. Next level will be obvious when it is available. It could be VR or AR or something so radical we can't imagine it but it has to be like computer to typewriter improvement. It does everything old technology did but it also opens the door to a whole new level of development.

> That is still just improvement on what's already available.

This is the entire history of computing.


OTOH, talking on a screen is not really a novel invention. OTOH, while Tiktok,instagram etc make it easier for someone to begin a TV career (because that's what it is, we just use different words), and remove the middlemen, it's not really turned "everyone to a broadcaster", only a few manage to become popular and dominate the market. As video apps become more mainstream, fewer and fewer people will test the waters in it, as the dominant influencers keep raising the barrier to entry. Same thing happened with blogs which bifurcated (good writers became "blogojournalists", bad writers ended in the gutter of facebook). So yes, we have a "new TV", but that's not fundamentally different than ... TV . Same could go for podcasts, a rehash of radio / talk shows.

A lot of people did streaming on ShoutCast.

>Computer science peaked in the 80s-90s. There arent bold new ideas to add, just incremental progress.

Any time I see a statement like this around here it never seems to include a suggestion. That's not to say there isn't something to be done, but when I think about my computer or phone there's no new idea I'm wishing they had.

>I can't think of a new mode of communication invented in the last decades.

Human communication is confined to the human senses. So again, what are we missing? What should be developed?


Usually novel ideas are not something we wished we had (like faster horses). Ground breaking ideas are technologies that are enabling new ecosystems, like the WWW, the iPhone, and probably in the future, VR. Even with mobile tech, we still have not exploited them to the max largely because they are overly dependent on the cloud, making simple things needlessly complicated (like transferring a file to a nearby computer).

> what are we missing? What should be developed?

We can only speculate, but despite all the tech thrown at it, our communication is still pretty mundane, serial dialogues. A technology like the internet could enable new modes of organizing information in which the output is more than the sum of the parts (like a spreadsheet for minds). Wikipedia did this, and open source software. Another is the ability to have direct payments without middlemen (what blockains do), that would enable a ton of new possibilities.


I can't help being pedantic and reiterating that smartphones with apps and stores existed before the iPhone. Let's not rewrite history. The iPhone's historical importance is overstated, especially when one considers the global market, where it was never a leading player. The US is very particular in that regard.

Isn't Notion pretty close to what's being described here? Sort of weird combination of networked spreadsheet, relational database, writing + notetaking app?

There's been an explosion of competitors and imitators, too. Some, like Roam, definitely have a utopian 1980s hypertext ethos.


Notion is definitely the closest but it lacks some of the magic (maybe it will get there).

Lotus Agenda for example would take your notes and automatically categorize them based on the categories you created in the earlier not taking process, allowing you to filter your notes by different "views" with no input on your end (after the initial category creation). For example you could mention a contact in a Task or Note and then that note would appear under the view for that contact automatically. Etc.

All this in 640k.


Roam started doing something very close to this with its backlinks, and a lot of the competing notetaking apps are imitating this feature. For instance I believe Notion has this now too -- if you link to or mention a page, a backlink will automatically up on that page.

Anyway, I think it will get there. The fact that Notion is using 500MB of RAM on my machine is definitely a downside compared to older software...


Notion wanted to be this I think. But it knows really few for a spreadsheet, it isn't enough flexible for a database, it is not really set up for writing (because of the blocks, at least for me...) and it is slow for note taking. Also they still do not have offline working and you cannot back up properly.

I think that today's developer tools, such as GitHub, represent the main difference to application developers. The secondary factor is ship cadence and deployment infrastructure. Lotus Symphony was one of my favourites at the time. It was so advanced with its own language "script" when it appeared. It supported add ins, an early predecessor to APIs, and had its own database. But dev tools such as Macro, Quick C, Quick Basic, MFC, Bench, NextStep, and Hypercard. There were many great Unix tools such as Emacs and RCS along with languages such as Smalltalk, LISP, Pascal, and C. And not to be forgotten Symbolics - the beginning of AI hardware. It was a great time to develop software. Anything was possible and everything seemed impossible. There was only some Internet (ARPANET) if you worked at the university like I did, or some advanced research lab, and to launch a product you went to trade shows and advertised in Dr Dobbs Journal. In the 80s we wrote wonderful software, and while as @rozzie says, most of it is gone forever, the innovations live on IMHO.

I think the main reason of their abandonment is Internet.

It just changed everything, people stopped create desktop apps and started to create web apps. However, web as a platform was really weak for complex apps, so only now we see how companies re-discover lost apps from 80s and re-create them in the web (Notion, Coda, Airtable, Fibery)


The web ended up setting back UI 20 years. Everything good from the 80s and 90s is being slowly and haphazardly recreated in the web browser, and we're still not to where we were in the late 90s.

Not only that but now we have to pay a subscription for the trivialist of applications.

I see what the author is saying, but I also think the "low code" stuff is catching up. I've seen things people build in O365, Quickbase, Airtable, Knack, and so on that have the same level of functionality I remember seeing in Notes/Domino.

Based on the title, I thought this was going to be about finding, archiving and curating those lost apps. Instead, it's just a complaint about how "it was better in the old days."

What gets me about this line of thought is that the technology didn't disappear. Anyone who wants to recreate "the lost apps of the 80s" just needs to grab a text editor and start coding.

Everyone has the power to create any app they like. Stop pointing the finger at other people asking why they don't do the work for you.


Dave has written and given away plenty of software over the years. I don't think that's a fair criticism of him.

he is: http://scripting.com/2021/03/23.html#a133813

recreating his old 'Frontier' in/with the web browser


“Why have so many great ideas been discarded?” I took a stab at this with my own theory a couple of years ago. I think there’s much treasure waiting to be rediscovered. Would love to know what people think.

https://blog.eutopian.io/the-next-big-thing-go-back-to-the-f...


In the 80's and 90's I used Tornado Notes for DOS both at work and at home:

https://www.atarimagazines.com/compute/issue76/ibm_writing_t...


I’m intrigued by the comment that “there is nothing out there with the power and usability that Lotus Notes had back-in-the-day”. I didn’t have the opportunity to experience Lotus Notes personally, would be curious to hear the perspective of someone who used (or developed) the application.

A surprising remark! The usability of Lotus Notes was so bad that it earned itself an entire section on a site called the User Interface Hall of Shame.

A proper and well-deserved honor.

For some perspective, this was an app developed by 5 core devs that grew to ~125M+ users who by necessity were split across implementations concurrently released for Windows 3/95, NT, OS/2, Mac, Motif, OpenLook, because we were an early enterprise product and needed GTM help offered by each of those platform vendors.

Our tiny dev team chose to prioritize platform breadth thru a "portability layer" developed in a pre-internet pre-browser era, with the constraint that its ~3M+ LoC (in C) had to run in a 250KB working set that grew to a couple MB by the time I left.

Yes, I wish the UI could have been better on each platform. But as a pragmatist I remain proud of the paradigm and its usability given the constraints.


Thanks for the perspective! It's always good to get a look at what the situation looked like to the people who were there at the time. And yes, I can certainly understand that you had to get a product to market within the applicable constraints.

I last used Lotus Notes around 2003, and it didn't even conform to things that had been standard 10-15 years earlier. It felt like going back in time to the 1970s, long before I'd ever used computers.

indeed https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?id=990

(see also Ray Ozzie answer in other comment about portability layer https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26697054 )


Notes was fun to use if your experience prior to it was Profs/OfficeVision. I had the odd privilege of using it inside IBM in the months before IBM bought Lotus, including writing the worst hack of sendmail.cf macros I thought possible to interchange between Notes, IBM’s RSCS networks, and the internet gateway we had. IBM had been developing a variety of GUI email products, mostly for OS/2, a little bit for Windows, but all in conflict with each other as well as the various OfficeVision flavors for OS/400 and VM/CMS. DEC had their enterprise email for their platforms, there was something for Novell. Notes gave IBM a single unifying platform for email and document sharing / management both internally as well as a product to sell to customers 10,000 seats at a time. In parallel the Internet went from being a thing a very small number of people were using to being the backbone of business, making a lot of the novelty of Notes obsolete. IBM in turn gave Notes the hug of death, loading up so much enterprisiness that Notes 5 felt like bloatware (it had a web server built into each client. And a JVM IIRC).

Things you got with Notes out of the box with minimal systems configuration effort: easy document sharing, easy authentication, entitlement, encryption of documents (and emails) across an organization. Easy provisioning of strong encryption across an organization. I could send digitally signed documents both within IBM and to peers outside IBM fairly easily. I could create a library of security processes for IBM's internet operations, pick out the organizations and people who could have access across the company, and it just worked. For bonus points we got document retention, audit logs, it all just was there out of the box. I didn't need to know ahead of time if someone was using Windows or OS/2 or a Mac.

It's easy to dismiss it all today as horrible bloatware, and as "just" an email tool it was probably overkill. I think too many companies (IBM especially) bought it, set it up, and utterly failed at educating people how to use it (IBMers were notorious for sending around email chains with multiple copies of Freelance or Powerpoint presentations, instead of a link to the presentation in a central repository, partly because IBM's services arm and IBM's CIO didn't want the overhead of managing such things.).


I never developed for it, but I had to support it. My recollection is that mailboxes wouldn't really delete stuff, which would cause servers to run out of space. Those mailboxes would then need to be compacted which would cause a multi hour outage for all of the users on the same server.

Notes issues were a nightmare, exceeded only by the problems caused by oversized apple talk and netbios networks, and physical layer problems in networks that predate the "base T" paradigm.


Notes was great until they shoehorned email into it.

I just want to point out that you are free today, as you have always been, to use the text editor of your choice - and then paste the text into whatever app requires some text. If I'm typing, it's in Emacs. That includes this HN post.

I'd still be writing SMB apps in Approach if I could

Once vim came along in 1991, everybody just switched to that



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