Mitch Kapor Returns

I can’t even begin to fully explain how exciting this is!

Back in the Olden Days of personal computing (i.e., the late 1980s), Mitch Kapor — the designer of the seminal spreadsheet program for the IBM PC, Lotus 1-2-3 — teamed up with Jerry Kaplan to produce one of the most innovative, forward-thinking, startling products in software history: Lotus Agenda.

Agenda was an odd duck for the software world of the 80s. Back then computers were limited in memory and power, so applications tended to be narrowly focused on one specific problem: type a document, keep a spreadsheet, and so on. Agenda was different, so much so that Lotus and Kapor had to invent a whole new term just to describe what it did. They called it a “personal information manager”, or PIM for short.

The idea behind Agenda was disarmingly simple. People, Kapor noticed, had appallingly bad tools available to keep track of all the various bits of data — notes, appointments, contacts, and so on — that float around in their heads. In fact, even with all the technology they had sitting on their desks, they tended to fall back on the lowly Post-It note!

Agenda was designed to replace that Post-It. It let you type in “items” (individual data points) in plain English, and assign them to categories — phone messages, to-dos, proposed meeting dates, and so forth. As more and more entries got entered in each category, Agenda, behind the scenes, would build a little dictionary of words it noticed you using frequently in each category. It could then use this dictionary to connect together items automatically, without user direction — so “Call Jerry this afternoon” and “Jerry Atherton: 555-1212” would be tied together, making jumping from one thought to the other easy and seamless.

Agenda was brilliant. It was revolutionary. And it was a colossal flop. The world just wasn’t ready for it yet; the two things that would make PIMs an idea whose Time had Come — multitasking PCs that could run more than one program at once, and mobile data displays (PalmPilots) to let users carry their PIM data with them — just didn’t exist yet. So Agenda sank under the waters, never to be seen again, and years later, when those conditions were met, Microsoft Outlook took over the world by default.

Now, though, Mitch Kapor is back. He and some trusted associates have spent the last year thinking about Agenda, what made it great, what didn’t, and how something like it could work in today’s wired world. Last week, Kapor pulled back the curtain on this effort, unveiling his latest project: to build a new product in the spirit of Agenda, using the latest technology and targeted at the small and medium businesses for which Outlook (and its practically-required server component, Exchange) is just plain overkill.

Oh yeah, and he’s going to release it as open-source, too.

Will Kapor be able to pull it off? Who knows; but the fact that there are still people out there using Agenda — a crusty old DOS-based character-mode program — today testifies to the continuing relevance of the Agenda vision. (If you’d like to see what that vision looks like, take it for a test drive — you can download classic Agenda for free, thanks to Lotus’ generosity.) I’m glad he’s decided to take another stab at making that vision come true.

UPDATE (April 9, 2007): Here’s a great page with tons of links for Agenda-philes, including links to a Wiki and a Yahoo Group where you can turn for help with your favorite PIM.



September 3, 2003
12:47 pm

Seems the link to download Agenda is not working. Do you have another source for this? I used to rely on Agenda for everything and I think I’d like to try using it again.

Jason Lefkowitz

September 3, 2003
1:08 pm

thanks for pointing out the broken link to the Lotus Agenda download. I’m not sure what happened to that site…
At any rate, here’s a direct link to get the Agenda 2.0 disk images from Lotus:
Apparently you’ll need to unpack these images onto 3.5″ disks formatted at 720K, *not* the standard 1.44 MB. Wow, 720K disks, that brings back memories 🙂
There should be additional help scattered around the Web, let me know if you can’t get it working and I’ll take a whack at it.
Good luck, and thanks for posting!
— Jason Lefkowitz