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The Desk Organizer

The Desk Organizer PackagingIn 1979, I started Conceptual Instruments to develop personal computer software. In 1984 Warner Software, a newly formed division of Warner Books, took over publication of our first product, The Desk Organizer. The original Apple II version had been named simply The Organizer. When I gave a copy to Steven Jobs, he responded "What's it organize?" thereby providing one of my earliest and most salient lessons in marketing. The IBM PC version broke much new ground in personal computing, including that it was the first terminate and stay resident (TSR) program ever designed for that machine. This enabled it to co-reside with other applications even on the single-user, single-tasking architecture of that time.

Design, programming, and testing of The Desk Organizer were done primarily by myself, Don Huesman, George Milner, Ivars Villums, Maggie Kennedy, and Joe Mork.

The product met with wide critical acclaim, as is illustrated in the following excerpts from reviews. In the interest of full disclosure I note that this reproduces a page from a press kit that I had in my files, so it represents somewhat selective perception. Still, my recollection is that for the most part, critics and industry sorts, as well as a devoted population of several thousand regular users, really liked the program.

Conceptual Instruments spent more than five years polishing this program, and the effort's The Desk Organizer's ease of use that should make this a winner....After wrestling with dozens of cantankerous, slipshod programs, I breezed through this one. It is clearly a program that was engineered rather than just churned's a gem.

Paul Somerson--PC Magazine; July 1983

The five plus years of research and planning that went into creating The Desk Organizer are evident in its elegance and power. The program embodies a radical reconceptualization of "user-friendly" software.

Milton Burglass, M.D.--Medicine & Computers; Oct 1983

I have had a chance to use this system for a while and am very impressed with its ease of use, logical design, and flexibility.

Ron Mansfield--Entrepreneur; Nov 1983

The Desk Organizer, from Conceptual Instruments Co., will vie for the most useful software package title with all serious users....just about the most useful thing to come around for the manager since 1-2-3, or maybe it's better, since you can run 1-2-3 from The Desk Organizer

Tom Bonoma--Microcomputing; Dec 1983

On the whole, The Desk Organizer is so easy to use that its manual might be considered overkill.

Joel Pitt--InfoWorld; Jan 30 1984

The Desk Organizer is the kind of software package that may change a lot of people's minds about a computerized Rolodex. This is a superb software package.

John Dvorak--InfoWorld; Feb 20 1984

Innovations as to new uses of the PC have been lagging. This gap is being filled by Warner Software...entering the market with a fabulous new product called "The Desk Organizer."

Daniel Casolaro--Computer Daily; Aug 3 1984

The Desk Organizer is an extremely powerful utility program that for many people could be a main reason for having a PC in the first place.

David Fay Smith--Software Publishing & Selling; Oct 1984

The big buzz in the biz right now is desk organizers. Somebody finally sat down at the keyboard with some monster database program and said to himself: "You know, this isn't the way people really work."...The most powerful of these new programs is called, appropriately enough, "The Desk Organizer." This is a dynamite program.

Bob Schwabach--Universal Press Syndicate; Oct 1984

Certainly it's user friendly enough to be a "fun" program, but more importantly, it is a highly functional piece of software that is ingeniously designed to help its user increase productivity, organize his affairs, set up a sophisticated appointment calendar, make phone calls by pressing one button, calculate simple and complex mathematical problems and do word processing.

James Hyde--Financial Computing; Oct 1984

The idea of sweeping all those piles of desktop clutter into a computer's electronic memory is the basis of a new genre of program that David Bunnell, publisher of PC World and MacWorld Magazines, has called the most interesting software development this year. Bunnell gives credit for the idea to Fred Collopy, a computer programmer and adjunct professor at the Wharton School, whose Desk Organizer program introduced early this summer was the first of the type. "Collopy's program is likely to be a trailblazer in creating a new use for the small computer, " Bunnell said.

Andrea Knox--Knight-Ridder News Service; Nov 1984

Warner Software may have come up with one of the best morale boosters for office workers fortunate enough to be using IBM PC equipment.

Lonnie Hodkins--Buffalo News; Nov 1984

The Desk Organizer may be the first piece of business software that is a reason in itself for an executive to buy a personal computer.

Charles Humble--The Oregonian; Nov 1984

If you would like to know how we at the On-Line America office think about it, it's the first program we boot up every morning, even before DOS, and the last program out of memory when we turn our PC off....All and all this is one heck of a piece of software. It's programs like this that lend credence to Bill Gate's vision of seeing a PC on every desk by 1987.

KIEV Radio; Nov 1984

For IBM owners, few programs approach the usefulness of Warner Software's The Desk Organizer. The Desk Organizer is an instinctive, easy-to-operate system that can be run concurrently with other software.

Michael Blanchet--The Anchorage Times; Dec 22 1984

My choice as the best software program I reviewed in the past 12 months is The Desk Organizer for the IBM PC. The Desk Organizer is a quality software program. Its design indicates not only ingenuity but common sense on the part of Conceptual Instruments company, which put the package together for Warner. This one earns a 95, and you may recall the rating rules here: The only way a program gets 100 is to cost nothing and run itself on your computer while you go to a ballgame or a movie.

Jeff Guinn--Forth Worth Morning Star-Telegram; Jan 1985

Few personal computer users would say they couldn't use a tool like The Desk Organizer. It is a personal productivity tool, the kind of instrument a person can become attached to.

George Hayles--Computer Retailing; Feb 1985

By the time you read this review, The Desk Organizer by Warner Software will already be among the best-selling Mac Programs, and will be on Apple's "favorite twenty" list, appearing in national ads sponsored by Apple. Why all these bold predictions? Because The Desk Organizer competes so well with other programs....I do believe Warner Software has decisively set the pace for the rest of the competition.

John Venable--Macazine; June 1985

The design of The Desk Organizer started out as an intellectual exercise. At a time when much attention was being paid to structured data, I wondered if there might be a good way to organize unstructured data given the limits of microcomputer memory (64k maximum) and mass storage devices (mostly floppy disks, some small hard drives). I consulted Donald Knuth's Fundamental Algorithms volume and developed a modification on a dynamic allocation algorithm presented there. I applied it first to creating a rolodex-like note keeper for Apple IIs and CP/M machines. The idea of extending it to manage all of the items found on a typical manager's desk developed while I was showing it off in the industry.

The Desk Organizer 's story is not a simple one. Years later I view it as a "critical success, box office failure." We pushed too hard against then current technology limits, attempting to do more than most machines were configured to do (today, of course, it can all be done elegantly in palmtop machines). This can likely be attributed to an optimistic assessment of how rapidly computing power would increase. In Warner's second year of marketing the product, Borland entered the market with a simpler program at a superior price ($80 vs. $295). The Desk Organizer was organized as an application, while Borland's SideKick was positioned as a utility. As such SideKick was leaner and faster. We responded too slowly to the competitive threat, particularly pricing. Borland's aggressive pricing constituted a change in how software was marketed, distributed, and supported. Their advertising focused on, and much of their sales volume was achieved through, direct mail. Ours was not the only product in the category to fail. Microsoft had killed their entry in the category, Time Manager, after only about six months. Spotlight by Dan Bricklin (the creator of VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet program), Get Organized by Electronic Arts (one of the largest pre-Lotus software publishers), and PopUps by Bellsoft were other desk managers that are no longer published (these products were compared in Whole Earth Review, 45, pp. 85 ff.).

In addition to product-related issues, there were some industry ones that may have been important as well. During this period, our publisher Time-Warner was under the threat of a hostile take over (by Rupert Murdoch), and Lotus, Microsoft, and Borland were transforming the nature of marketing and distribution in the industry.

Copyright 1998–2000 Fred Collopy. This document was last updated on 3/17/01; it is located at