Although a large development team built it, Lotus Agenda is the mindchild of one man: Lotus Development founder Mitchell Kapor. Unable to find a program that would do one simple thing--collect and organize his ideas in a sensible fashion--Kapor, the primary author of the breakthrough 1-2-3 spreadsheet package, began writing one himself. Kapor, restless for new challenges, left the company he founded.
Without a founder to champion it, Agenda floundered. As we've learned in previous versions of this Special Report, different post-Kapor regimes at Lotus had different priorities, and when the company purchased the mediocre Windows Personal Information Manager (PIM) Organizer, development of Agenda was halted. "As a company," Kapor says, "Lotus was very, very poorly set up to nurture new products, despite having a lot of them. The company had a lot of babies and didn't take care of them. Lotus spent a huge amount of money to sell the 200,000 or so copies of Agenda it sold. I don't know how many of them went to people who didn't use them, probably a lot. Maybe 20,000 actually used it. They didn't show people how to take advantage of it."
Yet nearly a decade after its demise, Agenda still has many advocates. Prominent columnist and editor James Fallows claims the program hasn't been bettered, and in recent years at least two groups of investors have attempted to purchase the Agenda code from Lotus. One of those ventures ended the same way many software ventures fail these days: the potential purchasers realized they would not be able to get funding to revive Agenda because Microsoft had just announced it would be giving away its Organizer-quality Outlook PIM, thus decimating the market for competitors.
But Kapor realizes that, as millennium approaches, none of the currently popular PIMs match the original vision Agenda. "Oh, we've had some evolution. PIMs have evolved a lot. They've gotten better at handling contacts and appointments. They've become very sophisticated. But the one thing that was the greatest thing about Agenda and why it still has a cadre of followers is the one thing that hasn't been incorporated into PIMs: multifiling."
"Today," Kapor observes, "the PIMs are very Web-influenced, they have connectivity features and all, but they're stuck in the old mindset. They're focused on managing contacts and calendars. Agenda was all about managing ideas. Maybe that means Agenda isn't really a PIM. But then again, the term 'PIM' was invented by Connell Ryan, Agenda's marketing manager, at the time of the product's first release. He invented that category name, but in retrospect the category didn't describe what Agenda was."
When asked whether he uses Agenda today, Kapor laughs. "No, no, but I recently installed it on my new Windows 95 machine, which I've gone to after being on the Mac for 10 years. Agenda today? It's like owning an antique car. You enter into a different world when you use it. As I used it, I kept thinking, 'God, I wish there was a modern version of this' because I have the problem it was designed to solve. I've tried to create some of that functionality into existing Windows products. I use Microsoft Word in outline and I've written a small number of Visual Basic macros that do a couple of the things I most cared about in Agenda, maybe 10 percent of Agenda. But that's all."
Kapor is not surprised to hear of some of the attempts by entrepreneurs to purchase the long-dormant Agenda from Lotus. "Today, under the right set of circumstances, it could be a successful product. I have been thinking about Agenda continuously since 1987. If I saw a fortuitous set of circumstances for recreating it, I'd be highly motivated to make that happen. Right now, though, it was take up a significant amount of time and expense, with an uncertain prospect of reward. I'm not going to do this as a vanity publisher. You need a couple of smart people for six months to get a minimalist version, probably a few hundred thousand dollars to get to Stage Zero properly."