No self-respecting office software suite is complete without a spreadsheet component. The inherent flexibility of the classic table layout and its cell-based formula has made it an invaluable tool for just about any computing environment, from offices to science labs, homes to schools.

Original Insight

Dan Bricklin is commonly credited with first implementing table-based calculations on a digital computer. The original idea is said to have come as he watched a Harvard University business professor struggle with financial model calculations on a blackboard. While still at Harvard, he teamed up with programmer Bob Frankston in order to realize his concept.

Bricklin wasn't alone in his thinking, though. There's evidence that Texas Instruments had a basic Table Processor design in 1977, courtesy of Dennis Van Dusen. TI decided not implement it, however, prompting Van Dusen to take it to Dan Fylstra, of the Personal Software Company.

Apple II

Things started to take shape when the Personal Software team met the Software Arts founders Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. By the end of their discussions, Fylstra had convinced Bricklin to produce a demo on a loaned Apple II.

The initial endeavor was a rather crude version coded in Integer BASIC, with a quite limited number of columns and rows. Nevertheless Fylstra was impressed. He immediately offered a cash advance and pushed for a formal, royalty-based arrangement where Personal Software (soon renamed to VisiCorp) would handle product distribution.

With this formal agreement in place Bricklin and Frankston formed Software Arts Inc. and started to code in earnest.

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Released in 1979, the $100 Apple II version of VisiCalc received rave reviews. Almost overnight it became an essential purchase for Apple enthusiasts. Later ports included early Atari 8-bit computers, Commodore PET, TRS-80 and IBM Pc.

It's difficult to underestimate the impact VisiCalc had on the emerging personal computer industry. For many businesses VisiCalc was the sole reason to buy a computer. Some pundits go further and suggest VisiCalc was a key factor behind IBM entering the PC marketplace.

Lotus 1-2-3
Yet it's success was relatively short lived. Former VisiCorp developer Mitch Kapr had left to form a company called Lotus, and a key part of its portfolio would be a spreadsheet! Database/charting product called Lotus 1-2-3, targeted at the booming IBM PC marketplace.

Released in 1983 for any MS-DOS computer it quickly outsold VisiCalc. Critically it looked and behaved a lot like VisiCalc, while taking full advantage of the PC's 80-column display and larger memory chip capacity. In fact Lotus 1-2-3 was so successful Lotus acquired Software Arts in 1985 and halted VisiCalc in its tracks.

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Lotus soon had competition itself, however. It came from Microsoft, in the form of its MultiPlan product. Initially released for the CPIM operating system it was soon ported to MS-DOS, Xenix, Commodore 64/128, Apple II and other home PCs.

At first MultiPlan struggled to match the sales enjoyed by Lotus 1-2-3. Only when it was replaced by the much improved Excel product for the Apple Macintosh (in 1985) and Windows (in 1987) systems did Microsoft begin to gain a dominant position in the field.