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Brief Excursus of Microsoft Excel’s Creation

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Author: Salvatore Corradi – FM Chairman

Everyone knows Microsoft Excel, the popular spreadsheet system, which organizes data in columns and rows that can be manipulated through formulas that allow the software to perform mathematical functions on the data.

The first spreadsheet on a personal computer was called VisiCalc (short for “visible calculator”) and was created in 1978 by a Harvard Business School student, Daniel Bricklin and a software engineer, Bob Frankston. Bricklin envisioned “an electronic blackboard and electronic chalk in a classroom“, so he recruited Frankston to help him write the code. One year later, VisiCalc enabled sorting and storage of data in tabular rows and columns. It was an instant success as one of the first “killer apps”.

Later, VisiCalc was sold to Lotus Corporation and served as the basic architecture behind the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet software application. By the early 1980s, Lotus 1-2-3 was the leading spreadsheet. Lotus had bought and then discontinued VisiCalc.

In 1985, Microsoft Corporation came up with Excel for the Apple Inc.’s Macintosh computer. Yes, you got it right; initially Microsoft released Excel for Mac users! This product was remarkable for its use of pull-down menus and a point-and-click device called a mouse. Other spreadsheets used a command line interface that required knowledge of cryptic DOS commands.

As a name for the program, Microsoft had thought of “Mr. Spreadsheet” and “Master Plan“, before opting for “Excel”, an ingenious reference to the numerous cells that make up spreadsheets, (some say that with that choice Microsoft wanted to underline that its program excelled over Lotus 1-2-3).

When Microsoft named its spreadsheet software “Excel”, it apparently did not know that Manufacturers Hanover Trust already had an automated banking program called Excel. As part of the settlement for trademark infringement, Microsoft agreed to refer always to its product as Microsoft Excel. In promotional materials, on its Website, even on the Windows Task Bar, Microsoft always calls its flagship spreadsheet program “Microsoft Excel”.

The rest of the 1980s were marked by intense competition: Lotus 1-2-3, Quattro Pro, and Microsoft Excel battled for dominance. Microsoft’s spreadsheet software pulled away from its competitors in the 1990s, and the product was marketed as part of a family of “office tools” that included Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.

As Microsoft included new features and enhancements in Excel over the years, they released newer versions of the software. Excel 3.0, launched in 1990, featured the idea of many sheets in a workbook. It represents the first case of software that introduced a “toolbar“, which later became a standard, not only for any program for the creation / management of subsequent spreadsheets, but also for many other types of applications (e.g. text editors and graphics processing tools). Two years later, Microsoft gained market share with the release of Excel 4.0 along with Windows 3.1.

Versions up to Excel 95 had a limit of 16,384 rows. From 97 to 2003, Excel could handle 65,536 rows and 256 columns. The version released in 2007 offered 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns, for a total of 17,179,869,184 cells. In short, a lot of data.

That of Microsoft Excel is a rather troubled story; a turbulent path that has led software to become the most widely used spreadsheet production and management program in the world.