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Spreadsheets Forever

On the eve of its silver anniversary, the electronic spreadsheet remains golden. Co-creator Dan Bricklin explains why.

This month the spreadsheet turns 25.4. Or 23.9. Or 24.7. That’s the beauty of the spreadsheet: change your assumptions and the numbers that derive from them change as well. So whether you’re dating the spreadsheet’s creation from its initial conception, its first commercial release, or the incorporation of the company that brought it to market, the ramifications of a new approach to a problem can be calculated instantly. To ask what-if is to know “What if…?”

Actually, that’s just one of its many beauties. In the quarter century since Dan Bricklin first conceived of the idea of the electronic spreadsheet, the software program has proved to be astoundingly flexible and nearly ubiquitous, used by people in every conceivable walk of life to not only “run the numbers” but also manage data in scores of ways, many of them unforeseen even by its creators. After all, in that spring of 1978 when Bricklin first imagined the product that would come to be known as VisiCalc, all he wanted to do was ace business-school case studies. And then came the Pepsi Challenge.

As a Harvard MBA student, Bricklin was assigned a case study built around Pepsi’s marketing campaigns. At a time when students relied on hand calculators and ratios to crunch the numbers, he was able to offer a series of very specific projections built around many variables. Asked by the professor how he managed to present so much detail, Bricklin danced around the issue, in part to keep the product a secret (he already knew where his postgraduate life would take him) and in part to avoid having to explain that the early program code didn’t always compute. But he and co-creator Bob Frankston soon worked out the bugs, formed Software Arts Inc., and saw their product become one of the two undisputed “killer apps” (the other being word processing) that gave people a reason to own a personal computer. Now chief technology officer at Web-hosting company Interland Inc., Bricklin sat down with CFO IT editor Scott Leibs for a look back, and ahead.

How is it that a program created in the earliest days of PCs, inspired at least in part by the immediate need to tackle a class assignment, has become a staple not only of the business world but also of life in general?

A lot of it depends on the basic structure of the spreadsheet. When you work with numbers, a grid of some sort proves to be extremely useful. The electronic spreadsheet took basic calculating, simple numerical computing, and other functions and married them with a layout for expressing and presenting results. It’s a very powerful combination of restrictions and freedom. It took the calculating aspect and the input/output and combined them in a very natural way. It’s a general-purpose tool, and in fact, as VisiCalc gave way to Lotus 1-2-3 and then to Microsoft Excel, those products further emphasized the use of columns and rows as a simple database. That was a major development; it made the spreadsheet a word processor or desktop publisher of financial information.

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