The hottest disks these days aren't those in jukeboxes. "Software is moving faster than records," says Computer Merchandising magazine publisher Bill Slapin, who hired Billboard magazine's veteran chart manager, Jim Muccione, to track the best-selling software programs for his trade publication. Despite Muccione's transferable skills, a substantial difference exists between the top 40 records and the blockbusters of the software industry.

Pop tunes tend to be overnight sensations. While the same is true for computer-game programs, most measures of business software sales -- including INC.'s Top 10 list -- are dominated by golden oldies. Records will spin on any brand of stereo; software programs run only on specific microcomputers.

And the numbers necessary for a software disk to soar to the top are much lower than the million copies it takes to earn a gold platter. VisiCalc and WordStar, for example, have each sold 500,000 copies since their introduction in 1979; SuperCalc, 250,000; PFS File, 130,000; and dBASE II about 120,000. "Any program that sells 10,000 a month would be way, way up there," says Bill Coggshall, president of Software Access International Inc., a new software market research firm in Mountain View, Calif.

A word of caution: Any best-sellers list should be viewed with some skepticism. "There really are no hard numbers out for any of these [programs]," says Egil Juliussen, chairman of Future Computing Inc., a Richardson, Tex., personal computer market research firm. "Everybody looks at it from a little different perspective and has different kinds of information."

One factor that can skew the numbers is "bundling," or giving away software with hardware. Every Osborne I computer sold, for example, comes with a copy of WordStar and SuperCalc. "You don't measure software sales when you measure that," says Al Tommervik, publisher of Softalk Publishing Co. "You measure Osborne sales."

INC.'s lineup is based on information from the industry's leading analysts and list makers. Still, what does achieving best-seller status mean? "The implication is you become a best-seller by being the best, and these are not by any means the best programs," says Jeffrey Tarter, publisher of Soft-letter, a Cambridge, Mass.-based newsletter for the software industry. They're simply the ones that are promoted most aggressively and are most generically useful, or in some cases are the oldest or best known."

Certainly all the best-sellers are intended for general applications -- financial modeling and accounting, word processing, filing and manipulating data. It is not surprising, then, that on a list of top-selling business software, three of the packages -- VisiCalc, SuperCalc, and Multiplan -- are electronic spread-sheets, while Lotus 1-2-3, an integrated package that combines, on one disk, financial modeling, graphics, database management, and limited word-processing capabilities (see INC., June, page 103) is primarily an enhanced spreadsheet.

So far, VisiCalc's reputation has keptit on top of the heap. And most of those who use only the original spreadsheet are satisfied. Irving Lang, for instance, president of Irving Lang Inc., a 26-person, New York City-based company that manufactures castings for the jewelry industry, bought the well-publicized program last year, after it was recommended by his computer dealer and demonstrated during a programming course. Lang would consider changing to Lotus 1-2-3" down the road," but for now finds VisiCalc more than adequate. "VisiCalc is so brilliant, such a marvelous piece of work," he says, "that every time I sit down [with it] I bless the writers of that program."

SuperCalc, the second oldest spreadsheet on the list, has a few advantages over VisiCalc. The commands are "significantly easier to use," says Allan Brewster King, product manager of Microcon Computer & Software Centers Inc. in Watertown, Mass. And column widths can be either globally or individually varied. Overall, however, the VisiCalc clone is not that different from the original. SuperCalc owed its initial appeal to the fact that, unlike VisiCalc, it would run on micros with CP/M operating systems, such as Zenith and TeleVideo. VisiCorp, says Egil Juliussen, "left that door open for SuperCalc to take. Then people got comfortable with it, so they stayed with it."

While VisiCalc and SuperCalc exemplify the staying power of business software, the presence of Multiplan and 1-2-3 on the list suggests that reputations can also be made very quickly -- with smart marketing and hefty advertising budgets. Both of these programs, though, are "second-generation" and represent significant advances over the earlier spreadsheets. (VisiCalc and SuperCalc have both released their own second-generation versions -- VisiCalc Advanced Version and SuperCalc 2 -- which have many of the same functions as Multiplan.)

"I threw away VisiCalc as soon as I got into [Multiplan]," says Bob Russell, who uses the program to keep track of payroll, estimate job costs, and draw up quarterly reports for Drinkwater Russell Construction Inc., his eight-employee construction company in Portland, Ore. "It s so much easier to use." Russell particularly likes being able to copy information automatically from up to eight different spreadsheets back to one spreadsheet and summarize it. "I use that quite a bit in figuring some bigger job costs," he says.

Although unembellished spreadsheets are still selling in quantity, Lotus 1-2-3" is on a hot track right now," observes Softalk's Tommervik. Egil Juliusson estimates that Lotus is shipping almost 10,000 units a month of 1-2-3, compared with VisiCorp's 15,000 to 20,000 VisiCalcs per month. But, he points out, VisiCalc runs on many more machines than 1-2-3; if sales are measured just on the IBM Personal Computer and PC compatibles, "1-2-3 is outselling Visicalc pretty dramatically."

Douglas Mayor, chairman of the board and president of D. L. Mayor Inc., a Kansas City, Kans.-based real estate developer and insurance company, started with VisiCalc, switched to SuperCalc, and has now transferred all his data to 1-2-3. The program's speed impresses him most. "You'd better watch your screen quickly," he says, "because [1-2-3] can calculate faster than you can see."

George Gynn, a retired Fort Wayne, Ind., engineer who advises area businesses, pinpoints another reason -- besides abundant venture capital and a fat advertising budget -- why Lotus is doing so well. When the company introduced an upgrade last June, he says, it notified registered 1-2-3 users that if they returned the disks they owned, the company would send them the new version. With the letter, Lotus included a preaddressed diskette mailer with prepaid postage. "It left a damned good taste with the users," says Gynn.

The Top 10 list's two word-processing programs, Apple Writer II and WordStar, are testimony to the power of word-of-mouth. The Apple Writer II, an upgrade of the original Apple word-processing program, does well, says Egil Juliussen, largely because it is tailored to the Apple computer, and Apple's brand name on the program helps it sell where the Apple sells. "WordStar essentially lives off its name," he adds. "It was the first and most famous. It's a full-function but fairly complex word-processor to learn, but once you've learned it, you've made that investment, and you're very happy with it and don't particularly want to change."

Bob Russell bought the enhanced version of Apple Writer, but abandoned it in favor of WordStar. Like many WordStar users, he also invested $250 for MicroPro's companion product, MailMerge, which allows him to process rapidly the 20 or 30 form letters he regularly sends out for bids. Although Russell likes the program, he echoes a common user complaint. "If you don't sit down and use WordStar a lot," he says, "you forget the commands, because it has a tremendous amount. But by having that many, it's got a whole bunch of functions too." To solve the problem, Russell purchased the Videx Enhancer II for $149, which, along with a $69 function strip, gives him 16 keys to which he can assign "macros." That is, he can program one key to represent four or five different keystrokes, or even an entire paragraph. By labeling all the keys with WordStar functions, he no longer needs to memorize commands.

Three programs on the list manage data -- any data, from inventory to mailing lists to employee records. dBASE II is, at best, moderately difficult to learn, but does a lot once you master it. PFS File and Report combined not only cost about one-third of dBASE II, but are also a snap to comprehend. Of course they can't do nearly as much as dBASE II.

dBASE II is a so-called relational database. Users can set up separate files with different kinds of information in them, then relate them to one another. For instance, a store owner might have one file containing the names, addresses, and phone numbers of all her customers and another with customer names and purchases, organized by date and price. If she then wanted to find the phone number of everyone who bought an item costing over $300 in the last year, she could produce that report from the two files. With PFS, a user could sort the customer list by zip code, say, but couldn't easily mix and match the files.

dBASE II is formidable because it includes a programming language. And any application must be set up using highly structured English. "The learning curve is steep," says Microcon's King, "but once you understand it, it's very easy to use. And, there are thousands of things you can do with it."

There are at least 20 relational data-bases on the market. Like other best-sellers, dBASE II stays on the list, in part, because it was among the first data managers and earned good marks from users. "Its reputation is so strong, that it's just mopping up the market," say Al Tommervik. And, he points out, software programs are sold by retailers that push the ones they can support. "You can walk [into a store], and if you beg and plead and hold your breath until you turn blue, they'll sell you TIM III [another database management system] instead of dBASE II, but they won't give you any help with it, because they don't know it."

Because dBASE II is both complex and extremely useful, it has generated its own cottage industry -- programs developed by third parties for use with the package. One type of program, Quickcode, for example, makes dBASE II easier to use. Others, such as dGRAPH, which takes information produced by dBASE II and turns it into graphs, make additional use of data generated by the program. (Both Quick-code and dGRAPH, priced at $295 each, are published by Fox & Geller Inc. in Elmwood Park, N.J.)

The PFS programs are known as file managers, rather than true database managers. The File package lets a user record information, then quickly retrieve, sort or summarize it. The companion program, PFS Report, will sort the data, do calculations, and print out a formatted report. "If anyone wants to do any sophisticated analyses of their data, PFS File and Report are much too humble," says King. "But they're very good for what they do."

"PFS sells because it's so easy to learn," adds Egil Juliussen, who uses the products in his company. "We have people who've never used computers, and they can do something in half an hour."

The remaining program on the list, The Home Accountant, has been a top seller" since day 1," says Denny Mosier, marketing manager for Continental Software. "There was nothing else in the [home accounting] category at that time." The package lets a user calculate net worth, balance up to five checkbooks, keep lists of payables, and budget. The version that runs on the IBM PC will also forecast. About half the programs sold, estimates Mosier, are to professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, who use it for business applications.

Doug Mayor uses The Home Accountant to monitor cash flow for five subsidiaries. Mayor "stumbled into" the software after trying a number of full-blown accounting packages, which he found much too large and retail-oriented for his service business. He also was dissatisfied with the system a local customized programming firm proposed setting up for him. "When we discovered The Home Accountant," he says, "it was like we had found a mother lode."

In addition to The Home Accountant, Mayor has used five other best-selling programs: VisiCalc, SuperCalc, WordStar, Lotus 1-2-3, and dBASE II. Irving Lang uses both VisiCalc and WordStar, and Bob Russell has owned Apple Writer II, WordStar, VisiCalc, and Multiplan. A little brand recognition clearly goes a long way in micro software. And it is not surprising that these executives had to try a number of programs before they found those that would do the job for them. Unlike top-selling records, a good software disk must appeal to something other than taste. The best program clearly depends on the application.

TOP 10



1. VisiCalc, VisiCorp, San Jose, CA. The original electronic

spreadsheet. Shipped 10/79

2. The Home Accountant, Continental Software, Los Angeles.

Accounting system, also used by smaller businesses on cash basis.

Shipped 12/81

3. PFS File, Software Publishing Corp., Mountain Biew, CA. A "file-

manager" that records, retreives, sorts, and prints data.

Shipped 9/80

4. Apple Writer II, Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, CA. Work-

processing software for the Apple computer. Shipped 1/83

5. WordStar, MicroPro International Corp., San Rafael, CA. One of

the first full-function work processing programs. Shipped 6/79

6. Lotus 1-2-3, Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, MA. Inte-

grated software combining spreadsheet, database management,

graphics, and some word processing. Shipped 1/83

7. Mulitplan, Microsoft Corp., Bellevue, WA. Second-generation,

easier-to-use spreadsheet. Shipped 8/82

8. dBASE II, Ashton-Tate, Culver City, CA. Database manager for

organizing, sorting, classifying information. Shipped 1/81

9. SuperCalc, Sorcim Corp., San Jose, CA. First major electronic

spreadsheet to work on CP/M operating systems. Shipped 4/81

10. PFS Report, Software Publishing Corp., Mountain View, CA.

Companion to PFS File. Sorts data, allows calculation, and produces

formatted reports. Shipped 5/81

This list is based on data for the first six months of 1983. It is drawn from information provided by Al Rommervik, publisher of Softalk Publishing Inc. (Softalk magazine and Softalk for the IBM Personal Computer); Egil Juliussen, chariman of Future Computing Inc.; Bob Leff, president of Softsel Computer Products Inc. (the country's largest distributor of software for personal computers); and Bill Slapin, publisher of Computer Merchandising magazine.


1. VisiCalc, Apple, Atari, Commodore, Pet/CBM-2, IBM PC, TI Prof., TRS-80, ($250)

2. The Home Accountant, Osborne ($99.95), Apple, TRS-80, Atari, Commodore 64 ($74.95), IBM PC, TI Prof. ($150)

3. PFS File, Apple ($125), Apple III ($175), IBM PC, TI Prof. ($140)

4. Apple Writer II, Apple IIe ($195)

5. WordStar, CP/M machines, IBM PC, TI Prof. ($495)

6. Lotus 1-2-3, IBM PC, Zenith 100, RI Prof., Hyperion, Wang Prof., DEC Rainbow, Victor 9000 ($495)

7. Multiplan, CP/M machines, Apple, TI 99/4A, IBM PC and all MS/DOS (incl. TI Prof., Wang Prof., DEC Rainbow), TI 99/4A, Radio Shack Model 15 ($275)

8. dBASE II, CP/M machines, IBM PC, all MS/DOS (incl. TI Prof., Wang, DEC Rainbow) ($700)

9. SuperCalc, CP/M machines, IBM PC, MS/DOS (TI Prof., Wang Prof., DEC Rainbow) ($195)

10. PFS Report, Apple, IBM PC, TI ($125)