VisiCalc and the growth of Spreadsheets
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Origins of the Electronic Spreadsheet

The development of the electronic spreadsheet came in two separate waves. The idea that you could model the standard business "spread sheet" with a computer was first suggested by Richard Mattessich in the early 1960s. While teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, Mattessich wrote about simulating a business accounting method with a "Budget Computer Program", as he called it. With the help of two research assistants, they produced this computer program for a mainframe using Fortran IV.

In an independent development the second wave hit the newly forming microcomputer industry in the late 1970s. A computer programmer by the name of Daniel Bricklin had returned to school to earn an MBA and found the inspiration for a new type of program in the tedium of calculating and recalculating his assignments manually. Here is how he recalls the event:

The idea for the electronic spreadsheet came to me while I was a student at the Harvard Business School, working on my MBA degree, in the spring of 1978. Sitting in Aldrich Hall, room 108, I would daydream. "Imagine if my calculator had a ball in its back, like a mouse..." (I had seen a mouse previously, I think in a demonstration at a conference by Doug Engelbart, and maybe the Alto). And "..imagine if I had a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations, and answer '10% will be fine!'" (10% was always the answer in those days when we couldn't do very complicated calculations...). The History of VisiCalc by Dan Bricklin

The design for this new microcomputer electronic spreadsheet was worked out by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in 1978. The program was called VisiCalc (short for Visible Calculator says Frankston) and it was marketed by Dan Fylstra of Personal Software. in 1979. VisiCalc was first available for the Apple II computer and sales began to rise when people realized the potential behind this new kind of program. Within a few years VisiCalc was release in versions for the IBM PC and many more computers.

A screen shot of the first VisiCalc program

To Patent or Not To Patent? That Is The Question.

Very soon the 1980s became flooded with programs that imitated VisiCalc. Many have asked the question why Bricklin and Frankston did not patent their program. The short answer, as Bricklin explains, was that in the late 1970s, software was not routinely patented. This was partly because the Patent Office would not grant patents to software at that time. Personal Software the company that published VisiCalc sought legal advice from a patent attorney, who suggested that they would have only a 10% chance of success if they filled for a patent. So rather than go through the expensive process of patenting VisiCalc, they decided to protect their product through trademark and copyright laws.

One of the most significant challenges that Bricklin and Frankston had was from the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. Soon Lotus 1-2-3 was taking away VisiCalc's market share. Several factors eventually led Lotus 1-2-3 to take over from VisiCalc. While the 1-2-3 program looked very similar to VisiCalc, they had made it more powerful and easier to use. VisiCorp (the new name for Personal Software) had not upgraded or expanded VisiCalc fast enough to keep ahead of the competition so in the end Bricklin was forced to sell VisiCalc to the Lotus corporation in 1985.

The saga of the spreadsheets does not end there. While Lotus 1-2-3 dominated the spreadsheet marked from most of the late 1980s and early 1990s, other players were intent on taking some of the action as well. Soon Lotus had its own imitators. Two of the more famous were Twin 1-2-3 by Mosaic Software, Inc. and VP Planner. from Paperback Software International. After a lengthy and much published lawsuit the court ruled in 1990 that these two programs had infringed too much on the Lotus program design. They were withdrawn from the market place.

Microsoft and Excel

In 1987 Microsoft joined the spreadsheet marketplace with Excel. Just as VisiCalc lost ground to Lotus 1-2-3, so too Lotus in time lost a signigicant part of its marketshare to Micorsoft's Excel. Here are a few points that may explain why this happened:

The Spreadsheet Marketplace Today

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Updated on May 7, 2000
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