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How the Electronic Spreadsheet Changed the World

Posted on by Indos Computer Services

electronic spreadsheet

Spreadsheets are the lifeblood of small to medium-sized offices. They’re fantastic, versatile tool; they allow us to collate mass amounts of data to feed deep business analysis, handle client billing, internal task-tracking and much, much more. But the spreadsheet today is taken for granted. It has a reputation of being boring, the lowest common denominator for office tedium. But the electronic spreadsheet was a revolution back in its day, and in this article, we’re putting it in the spotlight.

How was the electronic spreadsheet invented?

Like many indispensable inventions, the electronic spreadsheet was designed to fill a much-needed gap, to make outdated methods of working more efficient and more modern. The man we have to thank is Dan Bricklin, who, in 1978 was studying at Harvard Business School. During lectures, the student — whose background involved working as a programmer for major computing companies of the time — would notice how laborious it was for lecturers to repetitively fill in grids and columns on blackboards.

To calculate sums, one would have to write figures in, make the calculation, erase the figure, fill in a new one and repeat. For those working in accountant’s offices, this manual task would be carried out day by day in ledgers, a pencil in one hand and a calculator in  the other. Bricklin wondered why this entire way of working wasn’t being done by a computer instead. By 1979, it was.

The spreadsheet which rocked the world

After writing his own program to digitise the outdated manual spreadsheet using his Apple II computer, Bricklin would team up with fellow tech-minded friend Bob Frankston to release the VisiCalc — the first accounting software with built-in spreadsheet capability. It was an instant success, with accounting firms latching onto the software immediately, adopting it to create a new standard.

This was a true paradigm shift. Business owners finally had a ‘killer app’, something they could point to and say, ‘we need a computer for this.’

VisiCalc dominated the market. Even Steve Jobs would later go on record to say that the VisiCalc is one of the main reasons the Apple II was so successful. With VisiCalc, the monotony of ledger-based spreadsheets, master spreadsheets and the sheer time-sink these demanded was long gone. Accounting and data entry became simple and fast.

Naturally, in the world of tech, this quickly led to competition.

The spreadsheet wars

Not long after VisiCalc turned everything on its head, other companies tried to get in on the act. The most successful competitor was the Lotus 1-2-3, which had overtaken VisiCalc’s market share by 1988.

Other companies, too, would burst onto the scene, including Microsoft, with an upstart program dubbed ‘Excel’. The evolution of electronic spreadsheets was fast, as you would expect, and the automation of what was once a very labour-intensive job had extensive effects. It changed the way accountants worked, relieving much of the robotic nature of the job and freeing up their workday to focus on other things — and develop different systems, solve new problems and, all in all, bring more creativity into the role.

What the electronic spreadsheet did is typical of disruptive technology. It saw what was in place and thought ‘that should be done differently.’ In retrospect, the innovation seems obvious — analog to digital is a natural progression. But at the time, what Dan Bricklin developed was something more than incremental.

We use spreadsheet software so much now that it seems completely unremarkable. But there’s a power behind those columns, grids and numbers, a history, which serves as a great testament to the influence of technology. With VisiCals and its followers, an industry was changed forever.

At Indos Computer Services, we provide clear, straightforward IT support for small and mediumsized businesses across St Albans, Watford and Hemel Hempstead. We provide full support for Sage accounting software, and we use our wealth of industry experience to handle any technical issues you may have. To find out more, simply contact us today.

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