27. October 2017

3 things you don’t understand about spreadsheets (Part 2)

This is part 2 of 3 in a series of posts about the nature and history of spreadsheets. Make sure to also check out part 1: “Spreadsheets are programs”.

But now on to the second thing you don’t understand about spreadsheets:

Spreadsheets made the PC market

In the early days of the personal computer revolution, PCs were largely seen as toys. Great for tinkerers, children and toying around, but real work was done on mainframes. Not only were they much more powerful, but that was also where all the business software was to be found.

The spreadsheet changed all of that. VisiCalc — the first spreadsheet for PCs, and the one that really defined spreadsheet software as we know it today — was released in October 1979. Its inventor was a student at Harvard Business School, Dan Bricklin, who wrote the software with his friend Bob Frankston.

Dan gave a brilliant talk on VisiCalc’s inception at TEDxBeaconStreet last year (I happened to be in the audience, as the event was literally up the street from my house). Check it out:

What made VisiCalc so powerful was that it enabled users to write their own business applications (back then, everybody realized spreadsheets are programs). And not only enabled them, but did so in a very user friendly manner, thereby accessible not only to specialized programmers, but also to the business users themselves; those that deeply understood the needs of their companies and could create and adapt existing spreadsheets to address them.

That latter point is important. Early spreadsheets were marketed partly by demonstrating the value with example spreadsheets that were distributed with the software. Or as Dan Fylstra, whose company — VisiCorp — distributed VisiCalc for Dan and Bob, said in a 2004 interview in PC World:

“First, we created a number of example spreadsheets in VisiCalc of applications that were aimed at markets that we felt would be heavy users. […] We had the classic pro forma financial statement, inventory planning, real estate analysis, and insurance analysis. We had a series of things like that, each of them kind of a useful application. […] So we created a way for people to see tangible applications of the product.”

VisiCalc brought expedient data and analytics driven decision-making to the business world, as evidenced by this story:

“[Connecticut Mutual’s] chief financial officer wanted certain information, and his top “experts” had difficulty providing it. So one weekend he brought an Apple computer and a copy of VisiCalc home with him. Monday morning, he called his people in and showed them how he had gotten the information he had been clamoring for. “With one swipe of the diskette, he cut them off at the knees.” Stein said. “He out-teched them. His experts! He’d cut the chain. The following week, they all came down to learn VisiCalc — fast.””

A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge, Harper’s Magazine, Nov 1984

With this kind of stories happening all over the globe, it should come as no surprise that VisiCalc became wildly successful. So successful in fact that people didn’t just buy VisiCalc, they bought PCs just to be able to run it!And those PCs happened to be Apple’s. In a real way, VisiCalc was what made Apple as a computer maker.

You don’t have to take that from me. Here’s Steve Jobs — not quite known for giving others credit for his success — in a 1984 interview:

“VisiCalc … propelled the … success [of Apple] … more than any other single event”

VisiCalc’s success bred a lot of competition, and for a while there was a broad selection of competing products out there. Still, VisiCalc remained dominant for the first few years until Mitch Kapor’s much more powerful 1–2–3 took the helm in 1984–85 with a focus on the IBM PC compatible market. 1–2–3 dominated the market for years, and wasn’t really overtaken until Microsoft Excel pushed it aside in the early ’90s, partly through Microsoft’s control of the Windows operating system.

And again, spreadsheets played a big role in that development. Two little known facts:

  • The first versions of Microsoft Excel were written for Apple. In fact (the much smaller) Microsoft was commissioned by Steve Jobs to write spreadsheet software with a graphical interface for a very secret project Apple was working on at the time: Lisa and first Macintosh with their first graphical user interfaces for personal computers. Microsoft delivered Excel for the Mac, but in parallel secretly started a project of their own. That project eventually became Microsoft Windows. Jobs saw this as a betrayal, and thus began the rivalry between Jobs and Bill Gates that still hadn’t mended when Jobs passed away in 2011.

  • Commercial distribution of Microsoft Windows 2.0 (the first version that had overlapping windows and other features of a modern windowed UI) started in November 1987. Not as a standalone GUI on top of DOS, but as a GUI for — you guessed it — Microsoft Excel. Standalone distribution came the following month, but this is nevertheless indicative of Excel’s importance.

The rest is history. Microsoft Excel quickly became the dominant spreadsheet software and competition hardly existed until the rise of Google Sheets over the last few years — more than two decades later. And still Sheets remains a distant second in the race.

More on that, and the ubiquitous nature of spreadsheets in today’s world in part 3

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