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Why are spreadsheets so important?

Of rows and columns

Perhaps the most evident testament to the importance of office software right now is that this article probably wouldn’t be written without it. Whether your software of choice is one of Microsoft’s offerings or the more recent cloud-based G Suite from Google, it is undeniable that office productivity software has pervaded every aspect of work life in practically any field of work today. What is packaged today as an overall productivity suite from most providers, had pretty disconnected and separate beginnings.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll focus on one of the most significant types of office software, the spreadsheet. While initially conceived to deal with arithmetic and mathematical operations, today, spreadsheets are used for almost any application where tables and tabular lists are required. (Little known secret: a huge part of the work behind planning this magazine happens on spreadsheets). Most spreadsheet software today can deal with complex formulae, charts, graphs and macros, but they had a pretty humble beginning back in the 60s.

Paper tales

To put a date on the first spreadsheet would be to try and find the first time a human did their accounts. The term ‘spreadsheet’ was originally used to refer to bookkeeping ledgers – with the columns indicating categories for expenditure on top, the individual invoices listed on the left, and the intersection of the two holding the amount that was spent in that category for that invoice. This method was ubiquitous in the business world.

Pre-electronic spreadsheet days

An electronic spreadsheet, as a concept, was first outlined by Richard Mattessich in a 1961 paper on “Budgeting Models and System Simulation”. Subsequent works by Mattessich mainly dealt with adding or subtracting entire rows instead of single cells – still, as a concept. It was applied first using FORTRAN on the IBM 1130 in 1962.

LANPAR or LANguage for Programming Arrays at Random, invented in 1969 by Remy Landau and Rene Pardo, was used for budgeting at Bell Canada, AT&T, and General Motors in mainframes and time-shared systems. The birth of the modern times of microcomputer-based electronic spreadsheet software came much later.

On display

Up until the early 1970s, electronic spreadsheets were mostly linear. Which means, that for every change made to the a value in the sheet, the entire sheet had to be recalculated again. Sitting in a lecture at Harvard Business School in the late 70s, Dan Bricklin realised that there had to be a better way to deal with the table structures than what the lecturer was doing – using a blackboard ruled with vertical and horizontal lines, where he had to erase and populate several entries in the table each time he found an error or change. Together with MIT acquaintance Bob Frankston, in the winter of 1978-79, the duo created VisiCalc for two months and founded the Software Arts company, putting their entire experience in working with report generators and electronic spreadsheets into use. Up until this point in time, report generators were not really user-friendly, interactive, and couldn’t run beyond mainframes or time-sharing systems. VisiCalc changed all of that.

What VisiCalc looked like

While the initial design by Bricklin contained a measly 5 columns and 20 rows, Frankston’s code improved its speed, arithmetic and scrolling to a great extent and still ensured that it fits within 20k of machine memory, making it suitable enough to run on a microcomputer. VisiCalc went on to become the piece of software that practically sold the Apple II by itself. The idea of marketing it for the Apple II was from Daniel Fylstra, another MIT and Harvard Business School graduate, which turned out to be a great idea as the software was to be exclusive on the Apple II for a year. During that period, quite a lot of users bought the $2000 Apple II just to use the $100 software. Unfortunately, lawsuits against Fylstra’s own firm Personal Software (later renamed VisiCorp) and Software Arts distracted the developers of VisiCalc and created room for other players to take over the market.

Beyond the pioneers

A former head of development at VisiCorp, Mitch Kapor founded Lotus Corporation in 1982 and released Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983, which he developed in conjunction with co-founder Jonathan Sachs. There were quite a few features that made Lotus 1-2-3 the industry standard in no time, like integrated charting, plotting and database capabilities. For instance, Lotus 1-2-3 introduced cell naming, spreadsheet macros and cell ranges. The success of this platform is evident in the fact that Lotus Development acquired Software Arts in 1985 and discontinued VisiCalc altogether.

Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983

Around the same time, Microsoft was trying to perfect its own spreadsheet software, launched in 1982 as Multiplan for the Macintosh. While it did fairly well on CP/M system, which was the mass-market operating system for Intel microcomputers at the time, on its own MS-DOS system, it lost to the more popular Lotus 1-2-3. To turn things around, Microsoft developed a whole new software, which is what came to be known as Excel, for the Mac in 1985. A Windows version was also launched in 1987. The overall intention of Excel was to do everything that Lotus 1-2-3 does, but better. And by 1989, with Excel 3.0, Microsoft was doing exactly that. The command line interfaces of the previous competitors were no match for Excel’s GUI, mouse support, 3D charts and more.

Anyone could tell what made Excel popular in an era of command line based spreadsheet tools

A couple of things make Excel stand out. For instance, it was among the first to offer the R1C1 addressing system along with the more familiar A1 system that we use now. Also, as its growing popularity caught the attention of the industry, it faced a lawsuit from another company that offered a software package in the financial industry with the same name. As a result, Microsoft has since been required to use ‘Microsoft Excel’ or ‘MS Excel’ for all official purposes, although that practice has dropped over time.
Excel became one of the first spreadsheets to allow users to alter the appearance of the cells itself – fonts, character attributes etc. For a more intrinsic change, it was also one of the first to offer intelligence cell recomputation – which meant that only cells directly dependent on other cells would be recalculated when a change was made.

The Office as we know it

When it was eventually packaged with Microsoft Word and Powerpoint in the beginning of the 90s as Microsoft Office, it was the latter two who had to go through changes in design to be more consistent with Excel – so it is pretty evident who was calling the shots. By the time rival Lotus Corporation could come up with useful Windows software, Microsoft had already established its dominance with Microsoft Office. By 1995, Microsoft had successfully edged out Lotus to emerge as the top Office Productivity software provider. Eventually, IBM discontinued Lotus altogether in 2013.

Another factor that made Excel’s dominance possible was the inclusion of VBA, or Visual Basic for Applications, a language based on Visual Basic which provided the ability to automate tasks in Excel to a great extent and allowed the use of User Defined Functions (UDF). It also made spreadsheets a target for macro-viruses, which were later curbed as antivirus software developed the ability to discover them and Microsoft allowed users to disable macros altogether.

The websheet

As with most types of software since the advent and popularity of cloud computing, spreadsheets have also been successfully implemented as entirely web-based tools. These tools offer all the capabilities of their offline counterparts while adding features like multi-user collaboration, real-time updates from online data-sources and more – making them true powerhouses in the office environment. As we said at the beginning of this article, without the availability of spreadsheets as they are today, this magazine would be significantly different – but then, technology always has an answer, doesn’t it?

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.