A few words with the spreadsheet gurus

Twenty-five years ago, personal computers got serious. The occasion: The introduction of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and the original “killer app.”

VisiCalc enjoyed a relatively brief time in the sun. The program made its debut in 1979 and saw its sales peak in 1982. It was sold to Lotus Development only three years later, brought down by 1-2-3 and squabbles between creator Software Arts and marketer VisiCorp.

But VisiCalc changed the world by bringing the Apple II into offices worldwide.

Earlier this year, the Software History Center in Boston reunited veterans of the PC’s first decade to reminisce and exchange war stories. The luminaries included the three principals behind VisiCalc: Dan Bricklin, who conceived the idea; Bob Frankston, who programmed VisiCalc; and Dan Fylstra, whose VisiCorp brought the product to a surprised world. Here are edited versions of interviews with all three.


What’s it like looking back at VisiCalc?

Bricklin: Those were the days when we believed in the PC and the personal use of computing, and society hadn’t accepted it yet. We were evangelizing it. We believed in something that did come about.

Early stories about VisiCalc had a hard time describing it.

Bricklin: You can’t describe some of these things. Until you’re actually immersed in a certain technology and using it and seeing how the public uses it, you don’t necessarily understand it. Some people don’t understand why instant messaging has taken off so much among certain parts of the population. That was true for the spreadsheet, which seems so obvious now. Plus you had to buy a computer to use it. VisiCalc was a US$5,000 purchase, if you included a good printer. But for many people it paid for itself in the first year, or in the first month.

What are the most important changes in the spreadsheet since then?

Bricklin: What has changed is that the presentation of the output has progressed quite a bit, opening up lots of new applications. The most interesting thing is that it hasn’t changed much. The basic concept is the same: organizing rows and columns that reference each other, absolute and relative copy operations, and a grid that isn’t dedicated for any particular purpose. You can lay things out as you see fit. Now, of course, it’s taught in grade school, so people learn spreadsheeting and spreadsheet thinking from early on.

The thing that surprises me is that we haven’t come up with a better calculating metaphor. (The market failure of Lotus) Improv to me was what sealed that. Improv was based on tables as objects in their own right, so you had to think down to the level of the object. But people aren’t that organized in their thinking. And people like free-format tools.

Do you get a kick from seeing spreadsheets in use?

Bricklin: I love it. I still get letters. I responded today to a letter from somebody saying, “Thank you for putting food on my table.” That makes me feel really good.

What do you use?

Bricklin: I use Excel if I have Office on the machine, otherwise Works if it’s on the machine. I don’t need that much of a spreadsheet. But at least once a year, I use it for something, and I’m happy it’s there.


What’s it like now compared to the early days?

Frankston: I just jumped ship to the freedom of inventing things. The ship is now much taller, and jumping is farther, but there’s still exciting stuff. And today’s PC is so much bigger than the old mainframe. But the PC has been around for a long time. It’s pretty obsolete and we’re stuck with junky systems. We’ve brought back the mainframe and it’s not really what we want. You try to do something like look up a contact in Outlook, and you just wait for all the system stuff to load. People forget that slow kills. These lessons have to be relearned each time. I’m actually far more interested in networking stuff in these days. The Internet is in pretty sorry shape. The word ‘pathetic’ comes to mind. You look at the Web and you see a whole traffic jam. I want to look at all these devices and how you connect them, what you do with them and how you can build things. We need more basic (and highly programmable) tools.


What’s it like looking back to the VisiCalc era?

Fylstra: It was a very creative time. I guess I’d go back all the way to 1975 through 1980, so much happened. We had stars in our eyes. Others have said this, but we were children of the ‘60s — we wanted to change the world. This was our way to actually change the world, and in fact we did. We sort of dared to think that these new machines were going to amount to something, that personal computing would blossom. It wasn’t going to just be a neat hobby thing forever.

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