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.