Spreadsheet Redux

I’ve always taken the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana) phrase to heart.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the early history of the spreadsheet. I believe that the process and capabilities apply to Infinity Softworks’ work with FastFigures. And I think, like the creator’s and publisher’s of VisiCalc, it’s something new and different that is defying standard definitions.

The following includes selected thoughts on this complicated story: Dan Bricklin’s thinking around the design of VisiCalc, how they marketed the product, the relationship with their software publisher, and how Lotus 1-2-3 replaced VisiCalc as the de facto standard in spreadsheets.

  • The real power of the spreadsheet was not it’s calculating capabilities but the fact that an end-user, with no programming skills, could write a program for the first time.
  • Everyone struggled to describe the spreadsheet in the early going. “Though hard to describe in words,” starts the musings of a Morgan Stanley analyst, “VisiCalc comes alive visually. In minutes, people who have never used a computer are writing and using programs.”
  • We think of the spreadsheet as a calculating tool. But many people use it for data collection and charting as well. It really is a broad and powerful toolset.
  • What’s amazing about the spreadsheet is that fundamentally, even today, it hasn’t strayed from Dan Bricklin’s design. He conceived a mouse-driven scratch pad. You type stuff into cells and then create formulas by pointing to other cells. He conceived of features like split screen (implemented in version 1.0), graphing, and basic data collection.
  • You have to be there to play. Lotus 1-2-3 picked the winning platform for its time — MS-DOS — and then improved the speed and performance. It also integrated features customers wanted but never implemented into VisiCalc: basic databases and charting/graphing capabilities (with calculation making up the 1, 2 and 3 in the name).
  • Lotus lost out to Excel not for a feature set but because they didn’t move fast enough to Windows. Lotus picked the wrong horse, staying loyal to IBM and OS/2. By the time 1-2-3 was ported, it was too late.

And finally, a few conclusions:

  • It strikes me that every change in standard platform has resulted in a change in standard-bearer for calculating tool. Before PCs, it was the calculator. With the rise of the Apple II, it was VisiCalc. With the rise of DOS, it was Lotus 1-2-3. And then windows interfaces — Mac and Windows — precipitated the switch to Excel.
  • Platform evolution seems to take on the following software curve: small applications, custom development, specialized applications, software platforms. Right now, small applications and custom development are dominating mobile, with specialized apps starting to rise in popularity.
  • I’m not convinced the spreadsheets make sense on mobile devices. Do I want to see my spreadsheets? Sure. But it’s not the way I think most people will use calculation on a mobile device. Of course, I’m betting everything that I’m right.

5 thoughts on “Spreadsheet Redux

  1. Another point to make that is no small matter is that Lotus 1-2-3’s preeminence on MS-DOS was only able to be overwhelmingly and irreversibly taken over by Excel on the new easier to navigate/use Windows 3/3.1 (& 95) platform due to Excel making the user switch INCREDIBLY easy.

    Microsoft’s product managers insisted on incorporating Lotus-like ‘/’ menu access with many Lotus-like menu commands an option in the preferences configuration–a feature that, as I recall, was configurable upon installation.

    Easing the transition to the new platform is also key. 😉 There’s possible insight there for taking the ‘current model’ (spreadsheets) on the dominant PC platform and making them more mobile accessible I would think, as well.


  2. WOW great post, but isn’t the point that Spreadsheets made calculations “simpler” people didn’t have to be programmers. Today I don’t want to have to open a spreadsheet to do calculations – especially ones that I don’t need to save. When I do a quick TVM calculations or a Margin calculation I just need that info to make an immediate decision. Speed, simplicity, accuracy thats what I LOVE about calculators…

    Thanks for the fun blog post.

  3. Thanks, Tom. I think your point is well-taken and one of the reasons why spreadsheets (and the desktop save, open, new) model doesn’t work so well on mobile. It’s different. Quick in, quick out. As you said, speed and simplicity.

  4. I have the Documents to Go spreadsheet on my Zire 72 and I love it.

    What I’m never likely to do, though, is actually make an attempt to set up a new spreadsheet on the handheld! Too dang time consuming.

    What I love about it is that I can create a spreadsheet on my desktop and, so long as I purpose it to the Zire, I can copy it on over to the hand held and take it with me to use on the road. More or less a template process, if that makes any sense.


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