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Aug 8, 2021

Once upon a time, people were computers. It’s probably hard to imagine teams of people spending their entire day toiling in large grids of paper, writing numbers and calculating numbers by hand or with mechanical calculators, and then writing more numbers and then repeating that. But that’s the way it was before the 1979. 

The term spreadsheet comes from back when a spread, like a magazine spread, of ledger cells for bookkeeping. There’s a great scene in the Netflix show Halston where a new guy is brought in to run the company and he’s flying through an electro-mechanical calculator. Halston just shuts the door. Ugh. Imagine doing what we do in a spreadsheet in minutes today by hand. Even really large companies jump over into a spreadsheet to do financial projections today - and with trendlines, tweaking this small variable or that, and even having different algorithms to project the future contents of a cell - the computerized spreadsheet is one of the most valuable business tools ever built. It’s that instant change we see when we change one set of numbers and can see the impact down the line. 

Even with the advent of mainframe computers accounting and finance teams had armies of people who calculated spreadsheets by hand, building complicated financial projections. If the formulas changed then it could take days or weeks to re-calculate and update every cell in a workbook. People didn’t experiment with formulas. Computers up to this point had been able to calculate changes and provided all the formulas were accurate could output results onto punch cards or printers. But the cost had been in the millions before Digital Equipment and Data Nova came along and had dropped into the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars 

The first computerized spreadsheets weren’t instant. Richard Mattessich developed an electronic, batch spreadsheet in 1961. He’d go on to write a book called “Simulation of the Firm Through a Budget Computer Program.” His work was more theoretical in nature, but IBM developed the Business Computer Language, or BCL the next year. What IBM did got copied by their seven dwarves. former GE employees Leroy Ellison, Harry Cantrell, and Russell Edwards developed AutoPlan/AutoTab, another scripting language for spreadsheets, following along delimited files of numbers. And in 1970 we got LANPAR which opened up more than reading files in from sequential, delimited sources.

But then everything began to change. Harvard student Dan Bricklin graduated from MIT and went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation to work on an early word processor called WPS-8. We were now in the age of interactive computing on minicomputers. He then went to work for FasFax in 1976 for a year, getting exposure to calculating numbers. And then he went off to Harvard in 1977 to get his MBA. But while he was at Harvard he started working on one of the timesharing programs to help do spreadsheet analysis and wrote his own tool that could do five columns and 20 rows. Then he met Bob Frankston and they added Dan Fylstra, who thought it should be able to run on an Apple - and so they started Software Arts Corporation.

Frankston got the programming bug while sitting in on a class during junior high. He then got his undergrad and Masters at MIT, where he spent 9 years in school and working on a number of projects with CSAIL, including Multics. He’d been consulting and working at various companies for awhile in the Boston area, which at the time was probably the major hub.

Frankston and Bricklin would build a visible calculator using 16k of space and that could fit on a floppy. They used a time sharing system and because they were paying for time, they worked at nights when time was cheaper, to save money. They founded a company called Software Arts and named their Visual Calculator VisiCalc. Along comes the Apple II. And computers were affordable. They ported the software to the platform and it was an instant success. It grew fast.

Competitors sprung up. SuperCalc in 1980, bundled with the Osborne. The IBM PC came in 1981 and the spreadsheet appeared in Fortune for the first time. Then the cover of Inc Magazine in 1982. Publicity is great for sales and inspiring competitors. Lotus 1-2-3 came in 1982 and even Boeing Computer Services got in the game with Boeing Calc in 1985. They extended the ledger metaphor to add sheets to the spreadsheet, which we think of as tabs today.

Quattro Pro from Borland copied that feature and despite having their offices effectively destroyed during an earthquake just before release, came to market in 1989. Ironically they got the idea after someone falsely claimed they were making a spreadsheet a few years earlier.

And so other companies were building Visible Calculators and adding new features to improve on the spreadsheet concept. Microsoft was one who really didn’t make a dent in sales at first. They released an early spreadsheet tool called Multiple in 1982. But Lotus 1-2-3 was the first killer application for the PC. 

It was more user friendly and didn’t have all the bugs that had come up in VisiCalc as it was ported to run on platform after platform. Lotus was started by Mitch Kapor who brought Jonathan Sachs in to develop the spreadsheet software. Kapor’s marketing prowess would effectively obsolete VisiCalc in a number of environments. They made TV commercials so you know they were big time! And they were written natively in the x86 assembly so it was fast. They added the ability to add bar charts, pie charts, and line charts. They added color and printing. One could even spread their sheet across multiple monitors like in a magazine.

It was 1- spreadsheets, 2 - charts and graphs and 3 - basic database functions. Heck, one could even change the size of cells and use it as a text editor. Oh, and macros would become a standard in spreadsheets after Lotus.

And because VisiCalc had been around so long, Lotus of course was immediately capable of reading a VisiCalc file when released in 1983. As could Microsoft Excel, when it came along in 1985. And even Boeing Calc could read Lotus 1-2-3 files. After all, the concept went back to those mainframe delimited files and to this day we can import and export to tab or comma delimited files.

VisiCalc had sold about a million copies but that would cease production the same year Excel was released, although the final release had come in 1983. Lotus had eaten their shorts in the market, and Borland had watched. Microsoft was about to eat both of theirs. Why? Visi was about to build a windowing system called Visi-On. And Steve Jobs needed a different vendor to turn to. He looked to Lotus who built a tool called Jazz that was too basic. But Microsoft had gone public in 1985 and raised plenty of money, some of which they used to complete Excel for the Mac that year. Their final release in 1983 began to fade away

And so Excel began on the Mac and that first version was the first graphical spreadsheet. The other developers didn’t think that a GUI was gonna’ be much of a thing. Maybe graphical interfaces were a novelty! Version two was released for the PC in 1987 along with Windows 2.0. Sales were slow at first. But then came Windows 3. Add Microsoft Word to form Microsoft Office and by the time Windows 95 was released Microsoft became the de facto market leader in documents and spreadsheets. That’s the same year IBM bought Lotus and they continued to sell the product until 2013, with sales steadily declining.

And so without a lot of competition for Microsoft Excel, spreadsheets kinda’ sat for a hot minute. Computers became ubiquitous. Microsoft released new versions for Mac and Windows but they went into that infamous lost decade until… competition. And there were always competitors, but real competition with something new to add to the mix. Google bought a company called 2Web Technologies in 2006, who made a web-based spreadsheet called XL2WEB. That would become Google Sheets. Google bought DocVerse in 2010 and we could suddenly have multiple people editing a sheet concurrently - and the files were compatible with Excel.

By 2015 there were a couple million users of Google Workspace, growing to over 5 million in 2019 and another million in 2020. In the years since, Microsoft released Office 365, starting to move many of their offerings onto the web. That involved 60 million people in 2015 and has since grown to over 250 million. The statistics can be funny here, because it’s hard to nail down how many free vs paid Google and Microsoft users there are. Statista lists Google as having a nearly 60% market share but Microsoft is clearly making more from their products. And there are smaller competitors all over the place taking on lots of niche areas.

There are a few interesting tidbits here. One is that the tools that there’s a clean line of evolution in features. Each new tool worked better, added features, and they all worked with previous file formats to ease the transition into their product. Another is how much we’ve all matured in our understanding of data structures. I mean we have rows and columns. And sometimes multiple sheets - kinda’ like multiple tables in a database. Our financial modeling and even scientific modeling has grown in acumen by leaps and bounds. 

Many still used those electro-mechanical calculators in the 70s when you could buy calculator kits and build your own calculator. Those personal computers that flowed out in the next few years gave every business the chance to first track basic inventory and calculate simple information, like how much we might expect in revenue from inventory in stock to now thousands of pre-built formulas that are supported across most spreadsheet tooling. Despite expensive tools and apps to do specific business functions, the spreadsheet is still one of the most enduring and useful tools we have. Even for programmers, where we’re often just getting our data in a format we can dump into other tools!

So think about this. What tools out there have common file types where new tools can sit on top of them? Which of those haven’t been innovated on in a hot minute? And of course, what is that next bold evolution? Is it moving the spreadsheet from a book to a batch process? Or from a batch process to real-time? Or from real-time to relational with new tabs? Or to add a GUI? Or adding online collaboration? Or like some big data companies using machine learning to analyze the large data sets and look for patterns automatically? 

Not only does the spreadsheet help us do the maths - it also helps us map the technological determinism we see repeated through nearly every single tool for any vertical or horizontal market. Those stuck need disruptive competitors if only to push them off the laurels they’ve been resting on.