VisiCalc's Enduring Vision

Steve Jobs once quipped, "if VisiCalc hadn't debuted on the Apple II, you'd probably be talking to someone else".  Released in 1979, VisiCalc was the original electronic spreadsheet - and its widely recognized as the killer application that landed the personal computer on desks across Corporate America.


These days, spreadsheet software seems about as interesting as plywood; it's the default way of "doing work" on a computer - and stereotypically mundane work, at that.  I personally can't remember ever using a PC that didn't have Excel or some other spreadsheet software installed on it.  I do remember learning Excel's basic functions on a mid-90s Mac, and saving my work to a floppy disk (which was ritualistically dismantled at the end of the school year).

VisiCalc was the original Excel; and its founding vision remains clear and compelling.  Dan Bricklin worked as an engineer at DEC in the early 70s, before heading to business school at Harvard.  Along the way, he grew frustrated with how rigid and cumbersome it was to perform calculations on a computer - especially if you needed to execute a lengthy series of steps.  At the time, programs would allow you to step through your work, one operation at a time; if you had to redo an earlier operation, tough luck: you needed to redo all of the earlier steps.  Even for complex engineering and financial workflows, it was the equivalent of working with a jumbo scientific calculator.

Bricklin imagined a virtual whiteboard, which would provide the user with tremendous power and flexibility.  Instead of being at the mercy of a simple sequential interface, you would have "a very sophisticated calculator, combined with a spatial navigation system akin to what you'd find in the cockpit of a fighter jet".  With operations split into individual cells within the virtual space, redoing work would simply involve gliding over to the appropriate cell, and making your change.  Critically, any changes would cascade across the entire file, automatically updating cells that depended on the modified value.

Bricklin decided to pursue the idea, using the business school's timesharing system to implement the original code.  After bootstrapping a first version himself, Bricklin recruited his college friend, Bob Frankston.  Frankston built out a production version of the "Visible Calculator", targeting the MOS 6502 microprocessor in the Apple II.  When the software debuted at the National Computer Conference in 1979, it quickly garnered attention from the well-established PC hobbyist community - and even more attention from the enterprise market.

At the time, PCs weren't a common sight within large corporations.  A handful of domain-specific applications existed for certain industries, but by in large, any computing work was done using large mainframes.  Ben Rosen, a prominent analyst at the time, saw VisiCalc's launch as a seminal moment; It was the first piece of personal computing software that could be utilized for broad categories of business problems, required no technical understanding outside of the program itself, and was priced affordably ($100).  Rosen's convictions were quickly validated by the market; by 1981, VisiCalc was arguably the primary reason that Corporate America was purchasing personal computers en masse.


VisiCalc transformed business workflows that had historically relied on the use of mainframes or pen-and-paper.  The most obvious advantage was speed; performing calculations by hand - pertaining to accounting, inventory planning, or myriad other business functions - was often tedious and error-prone.  VisiCalc introduced the formula system that's still a cornerstone of spreadsheet software today, allowing calculations to be intuitively specified.  Paired with the automatic recomputation, the difference was night and day.  Changing one variable in a complex forecast no longer required hours (or days) of manual recomputation; you could simply update a single cell in the spreadsheet, and watching the chain of formulas automatically refresh.

Beyond their commercial success, Bricklin's team deserves credit for introducing several high-minded computing concepts to the everyday user.  VisiCalc's formula system popularized an approach that would become known as "programming-by-example"; a new user could learn the software's core commands by simply tracing through the calculations in an existing spreadsheet.  This transparency opened the door to meaningful collaboration; instead of trading papers, analysts could work off of the same VisiCalc file, or synthesize results from different files.  For many, it was the first time doing any sort of computer-based work in a collaborative manner.

As the PC market grew in the early 80s, credible competitors began to come after VisiCalc's throne.  Bricklin and his team defended their dominant position for several years, before eventually losing ground to Lotus 1-2-3 (written by former VisiCalc employee, Mitch Kapor).  Lotus would enjoy success through much of the 80s, until Microsoft's Excel ascended to the top - a position that was massively fortified in the early 90s by the rise of Microsoft Windows.  

Forty years later, VisiCalc's legacy lives on in each spreadsheet created using Excel or Google Docs.  Every tier of the modern corporation runs on electronic spreadsheets - perhaps to an unsettling degree.  It's hard not to grimace at the large, macro-riddled Excel files that (barely) get sent via email  - and wonder if we're overdue for another leap forward.  While there are now countless applications for aggregating and analyzing data, none have managed to erode the ubiquity of the spreadsheet.  Those pursuing the next killer application would do well to learn from VisiCalc's clarity in vision, if they hope to build something that endures.


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