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How We Got To The Perfect Spreadsheet: A Brief History
Sat 10th September 2011
Yet this was not always the case. Electronic spreadsheets have been going longer than you may think and the first pioneering software of decades ago did not bare the Microsoft stamp but names that now feel strangely archaic and quaint.
It was in 1978 that Daniel Bricklin, a student at Harvard Business School, hit upon the idea of an 'interactive calculator'. His hand was forced by having to prepare a case study report and possessing no means of doing it quickly and efficiently except by hand. His answer, VisiCalc, used a matrix of five columns and twenty rows and was, by Bricklin's own admission, not very powerful. After bringing on board Bob Frankston to speed up the production code and improve the arithmetic Bricklin's dream of 'an electronic blackboard and electronic chalk in a classroom' finally took hold, becoming the impetus for many consumers to invest in a personal computer.
Yet Bricklin and Frankston were unable to build upon the success of VisiCalc due to legal issues with their marketing partners VisiCorps in the early 1980s and this cleared the way for a former VisiCalc project manager Mitch Kapoor to unleash Lotus 1-2-3.
For all its vision and innovation VisiCalc would be viewed by today's young professionals as extremely crude and clunky. Kapoor's Lotus 1-2-3 on the other hand is where spreadsheets begin to become recognisable as the invaluable calculation tools that they are today. Lotus introduced many industry standards such as named cells and cell ranges as well as making spreadsheets more accessible and intuitive with integrated plotting and charting. For the first time a spreadsheet was valued as much for its data presentation capabilities as its calculation skill.
All of which brings us to Microsoft Excel. Written by Bill Gates for the Apple Mac in 1984 Excel transformed electronic spreadsheets from a sophisticated luxury to an absolute essential. The drop down menus, point and click mouse technology and graphical interface all contributed to a program with a vastly superior ease of use to Lotus 1-2-3 and, by the time Microsoft launched Windows in 1987, it was the company's flagship application and the entire reason that many consumers opted to embrace the Windows operation system.
By 1995 Microsoft Excel had effectively seen off all of the challengers to its crown to become the de facto market leader in electronic spreadsheets, a position it holds to this day. Successive reboots of the program every few years have added a host of features that enhance Excel's accessibility as well as its sophistication and made it unthinkable for a serious professional in the modern corporate world to do without its charms.
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