Tuesday, September 22, 2009

“How did we ever do without it?”

“How did we ever do without it?”

As I sit thumb typing my last email of the evening on my BlackBerry, I’m reminded how much technology has changed my life and how often I find myself asking how did I do without certain key items in my life. Items that I lived perfectly well without, but now somehow find myself dependent upon. Technology has great potential to make our lives easier, more productive and satisfying. Spreadsheets are the type of application we may not think of often but one many of us have grown to depend on.

The early 1970’s were an interesting time in America. Technology was just starting to make its way into American households and the American culture was changing. The “hippie” generation was being replaced with the “Me Decade.” Novelist Tom Wolfe of New York magazine coined the 70’s as the “Me Decade” in August 1976. This time in American history was aptly named due to the general shift in self-awareness and retreat away from community. In comparison to the overt interest in history and community experienced in the 60’s, the 70’s found American’s turning away from community and focusing their energies and attentions inward. There was an obvious pull away from the culture of the 60’s. In 1970, in one American school’s Parent Teachers Association (PTA) produced a pamphlet titled: “How to tell if your child is a potential Hippie and what you can do about it.”

In response to American’s new shift of interest we saw many changes in the home during this decade. In the early 70’s the VCR changed home entertainment forever. American’s no longer needed to leave their homes to enjoy a movie. We were viewing our homes differently and this created a paradigm that fostered the continued retreat from community.

Soon after the VCR became available, Ed Roberts coined the term personal computer. This system was available for $395 and included the case. Early personal computers were frequently purchased by computer hobbyist. With few programs available, the early PC’s were often used to play games such as chess and pong. These systems were often purchased for fun or for someone who wished to learn how to program and wanted to do so from the convenience of their home.

With average salaries under $18,000 the cost of a computer to play games was unattainable for many. Prices for home computers ranged from $800 for the Radio Shack model or Commodore models to $2638 for the Apple II. In present value that would be about $8000! Computer owners tended to be upscale, with little computer experience who would classify themselves as computer hobbyists. Until the late 70’s personal computers did not offer programs to do any sort of “real work.”

While riding his bike on Martha’s Vineyard in the spring of 1978, Harvard MBA candidate Dan Bricklin thought of a way to make computers “useful” and invented the first widely used personal computer business application. As a business student, Dan often thought of the value of being able to change values on a ledger while instantly seeing all of the dependant values change. In essence, performing what if analysis in an electronic ledger. Dan modeled the first “killer business application” on an accounting ledger. His model contained labeled rows and columns, methods for entering values and formulas, the ability to scroll in four directions and hold 1000 values. This early prototype’s user interface is remarkably similar in structure to today’s spreadsheets.

In 1978 Visible Calculator (VisiCalc) sold more than 100,000 copies. A quote in a Morgan Stanley Electronics letter dated July 11, 1979, stated, “VisiCalc could someday become the software tail that wags (and sells) the personal computer dog.” VisiCalc brought personal computers into American homes. It transcended the market beyond computer hobbyists pursuing entertainment to people who wanted to do “real work.” Personal computer prices started dropping as storage and processors decreased in price and the appeal to have a home pc was increased due largely to the availability of VisiCalc.

In 1983 Lotus 1-2-3 was released. This version bypassed the DOS operating system providing for much quicker response times. At the same time, the VisiCalc stakeholders were very slow (due largely to internal legal conflicts) to respond to the introduction of the IBM PC using the Intel chip. Lotus 1-2-3 quickly took hold of the spreadsheet market and held onto it for quite sometime. In 1985 Lotus purchased VisiCalc and another spreadsheet named Multiplan. Lotus added charting, plotting, basic database functionality along with the ability to name cells and create basic macros. The basic interface design of cells in rows and columns however remained unchanged.

By 1995 IBM acquired Lotus, and Lotus started losing market share. Microsoft Excel soon became the forerunner in business spreadsheet applications and has held onto this for over a decade. With the shift into the clouds, Excel will most likely be replaced by a real-time collaborative spreadsheet in the clouds such as Google spreadsheets. While the functions and tools have evolved over the years the basic spreadsheet structure invented by Dan Bricklin in 1978 remains unchanged. Spreadsheets are still organized in rows and columns. Organizing, adding and/or deleting rows and columns are performed using very similar steps to what VisiCalc users did in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Sure, we now have intuitive graphical user interfaces to make these processes easier but the fundamental structure and interface is the same. Insert a row, delete column, sum a column of numbers, and perform a what if analysis – all arguably the same contents just a different package.


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