guterman.clips.Agenda

(In the summer of 1998, I wrote a Special Report for Silicon Prairie celebrating a fascinating, breakthrough, all-too-forgotten PC program: Lotus Agenda. I've received several requests to publish it here.)

Before we revive the long-dead Lotus Agenda program, let's return to the computing world of 1988...

Does anyone remember MS-DOS? Those whose memories of desktop computing go back farther than Windows spent much of their days wrestling with the text-based operating system. It was an ugly place to work. If you were foolhardy enough to try multitasking in the DOS world (relatively few did), you were confronted with programs like DesqView and Software Carousel whose sole purpose seemed to be to make sure that your programs crashed just as you were about to save your file.

But part of what made those task-switching packages necessary was the one thing about DOS that seems charming today: it forced you to focus on one program and one file at the time. The Web didn't exist, the Internet was still called the Arpanet, and MCI Mail, Dow Jones News/Retrieval, and Compuserve were too expensive to waste much time online. Indeed, it was so much of a pain to move from one program to another--you had to save all your files, close the program, move to a new directory, and then invoke the second program--that many felt it was too much trouble to switch to Tetris and just kept working on their Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet.

The first attempt to let people clutter their PC desktops with more than one program were terminate-and-stay-resident (TSR) programs like Borland's Sidekick, an early, clumsy, but ultimately influential attempt at a digital personal information-management (PIM) program. They could pop up on your screen if you wanted them to, with tiny memo pad, calculator, or date book applets. A two-key combination could toggle the program in and out of your life.

As primitive as they were, programs like Sidekick did fulfill a need. Even in the early days of PC-information overload, it was clear that the most popular programs (1-2-3 for spreadsheets, WordPerfect for writing, dBase for databases, all since overtaken by their competitors at Microsoft) were dramatically insufficient at organizing information in the free-form, multiple-category manner in which most of us think.1-2-3 and dBase were too structured, WordPerfect just generated lists. There had to be something in-between. Sidekick wasn't it, but its commercial success suggested that the desire for a PC program that stored useful information, rather than raw data, was great. But could this be done in a full program, not just a TSR add-on?

Among the people who looked for such a program was Lotus Development founder and 1-2-3 author Mitch Kapor, who created a prototype of such a package and eventually helmed the construction of Lotus Agenda, an astounding, unprecedented program.

Several hundred thousand people purchased the $295 Agenda, but the program was abandoned by the company after only one upgrade. It was that rare program: developed for a mass audience but deeply idiosyncratic. It's unlikely that all of the people who bought (or whose companies bought them) Agenda used it, or used it as suggested--not everyone's mind works like Kapor's. Anyone who has taken a single course in perception or neurobiology knows that every person's brain interprets and organizes information differently. There are basic similarities (i.e., we all use the occipital lobe for visual information), but our neurons are as unique as our fingerprints. It's easy to be skeptical when a company claims to have a program that "organizes your computer like your mind." A recent PIM, "The Brain," made such a claim, but it only worked like the developer's brain and appears to have flopped in the marketplace.

The better part of a decade after Agenda was abandoned by Lotus, it still has adherents. High-profile journalists like James Fallows still shout its praises (he in the pages of The Atlantic, of all places) and more than one group of entrepreneurs attempted to purchase it from Lotus in recent years. In today's world of Internet overload, the first paragraph of the original Agenda User's Guide seems appealing:

Information comes at you constantly from all directions. Agenda, the new personal information manager from Lotus, can help you collect and organize this information so you can view it from every conceivable angle.

Ten years later, are people with PCs still waiting for such a program? In this month's Special Report, we'll examine Agenda, covering everything from how it was developed to why it was cancelled to why many think it might be the ideal program for 1998.

Chances are you don't use Agenda (or if you did, the diskettes are long thrown away). Part of the Special Report will be an analysis of how the program worked, so you may be interested in trying it out. It's long deleted from the Lotus catalog, but you can find it buried on Lotus's public FTP site. If you're interested, you can find information on the complicated download process (warning: you'll have to reformat your floppy disks to 720K-bytes, which suggests how cumbersome the procedure is) here.

How It Works

Mike Kraley on Agenda

Mitch Kapor on Agenda

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