30 Years Ago: PC Spreadsheets Bring Number Crunching to the Masses

eWEEK 30: Spreadsheet software from software pioneers such as VisiCalc, Lotus Development, Microsoft and Borland Software helped turn millions of corporate PC users into expert number crunchers.

PC spreadsheet software brought about a fundamental change in the way that the corporate number crunchers—the accountants, financial analysts, stock traders and marketing managers—got access to the computing power they needed to do their jobs.

PC Week, the predecessor of today's eWEEK, closely followed the astounding growth in the use of PCs and spreadsheets in the 1980s. The story about the evolution of the PC spreadsheet was not a dry technical narrative.

Like the growth of the PC market itself, the story about how spreadsheets became a critical computer business tool is about the rapid rise and fall of companies that were once household names. The early spreadsheet market was built by a combination of shrewd entrepreneurs and brilliant technologists, including Mitch Kapor and Jonathan Sachs of Lotus Development, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston of VisiCalc, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Philippe Kahn of Borland Software.

Along with email, spreadsheet software was the application that most helped justify corporate deployment of PCs in huge numbers during the 1980s. Countless millions of copies of popular spreadsheet programs—including VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, SuperCalc and, later, Microsoft Excel and Borland's Quattro Pro—were sold during these years, putting fairly sophisticated financial and statistical modeling tools into the hands of people who a few years earlier probably had no idea what a spreadsheet was.

Spreadsheets were also the tools that helped teach a generation of developers and statistical analysts how to write complex macros and mathematical algorithms that drive today's globally interconnected financial markets and trading systems. The development and deployment of these systems would likely have taken years longer if the corporate world didn't gain access to relatively inexpensive PCs and spreadsheet software.

In the days before PCs became widely available in the 1980s, anybody who needed to tally up a lot of numbers up sent a request to the data processing center asking for a report from a pre-existing database application running on a mainframe or midrange computer.

These were the days of "batch processing." It wasn't necessarily possible to pull up a preformatted report on a mainframe terminal. However, if a report was scheduled to run on a particular day of the month or if it was deemed sufficiently important to get a high production priority, the requester could expect to get the report back in a few days or so printed out on a thick stack of flimsy perforated computer paper.

The requester would then sift through that stack of paper searching for the sales numbers, cost estimates, financial results or whatever information he or she was actually looking for and then manually type up a report.

There were mainframe spreadsheet applications, of course, that were developed as early as the 1960s. But getting access to mainframe computing time was hardly a democratic process. Computing resources were limited, and they went to the users with the greatest need. Access was granted to the experts, to the initiated—not to the average Joe or Jane who needed something more powerful than a calculator to produce a complex statistical report.

The PC spreadsheet changed all that. The first PC spreadsheet to catch on was VisiCalc. It was originally developed for the Apple II by Software Arts, which was founded by Bricklin and Frankston, who together are considered the "fathers" of the PC spreadsheet.

But it was later ported to IBM and compatible computers, where it rapidly caught on, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and helping to open corporate office doors to rapid PC adoption.

Another early spreadsheet application that is mostly forgotten today is SuperCalc, which was created by Sorcim in 1980 for the CP/M operating system that originally ran on the early Osborne 1 portable computer. It was later ported to the Apple II and IBM-compatible PCs. In some ways, SuperCalc was more advanced than VisiCalc, particularly in its ability to perform the iterative solving of spreadsheet cells that depend on each other's results.

Many people may also forget that Microsoft introduced a spreadsheet program before Excel. This was Multiplan, which it introduced as a competitor to VisiCalc on the CP/M platform in 1982.

Microsoft soon developed versions for the Apple II, DOS and other early PCs. Multiplan for the Macintosh was Microsoft's first spreadsheet with a graphical interface, helping to make it the most popular spreadsheet on the early-generation Macintoshes, which was a point of some pride for Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s eWEEK.com since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...