The spreadsheet you are probably most familiar with is Microsoft Excel. But have you ever wondered why Excel looks and behaves like this? Why does Excel arrange data in a grid of cells? Why are columns indicated with letters and rows with numbers? The answer, like most things in IT, is because of compatibility.
The first “computer spreadsheet”
Before the computer spreadsheet, accountants put numbers on paper worksheets. Each worksheet had column dividers and lines to define rows. VisiCalc also displayed values in columns and rows, with each column labeled with a letter from
BK (63 columns) and each row with a number from
254 . VisiCalc identified an individual cell with a combination of the column letter and the row number, that is
A1 was the cell in the first column and the first row while
D12 was the cell in the fourth column and the twelfth row.
With VisiCalc, you’ve entered a grid of numbers, such as travel expenses or a department budget, and edited it. You can add a series of numbers with the
SUM function, or find the minimum value with the
Pretty much the same way you would use spreadsheets today, with a few minor differences. For example, VisiCalc used the math ellipses notation, which represents a range as
A1...A10. Also unlike modern spreadsheets, VisiCalc used the
@ symbol to indicate functions, such as
@SUM(A1...A10) to calculate a sum over a range.
VisiCalc became a “must-have” application. Businesses everywhere bought personal computers with VisiCalc. But popularity creates competition. Lotus Corporation released the Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983 and soon replaced VisiCalc as the market leader in computer spreadsheets.
One reason Lotus 1-2-3 was able to catch up with the competition is that users did not have to relearn the spreadsheet. Like VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 labeled columns with letters, rows with numbers, and cells with the
A1 syntax. Even the functions of Lotus 1-2-3 were the same as those in VisiCalc, including the
@ to start a function reference.
Lotus 1-2-3 has also streamlined a few things, making the spreadsheet easier to use. A notable example is how you specify a range. Instead of the “three points” ellipses in VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 used only two points. So to calculate a sum over the cells
A10 , you came in
And Lotus 1-2-3 has added new features such as the ability to map data. And if the computer spreadsheet that was “All of VisiCalc and more”, Lotus 1-2-3 overtook VisiCalc in the market.
Compatibility was key for Lotus 1-2-3 to catch up with VisiCalc, and it didn’t go unnoticed by other spreadsheets. Even the shareware spreadsheet As-Easy-As from TRIUS ensured good compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3. Still, Lotus 1-2-3 remained dominant throughout the 1980s.
It wasn’t until Microsoft developed applications for the graphical user interface of Apple’s Macintosh that the spreadsheet landscape changed. Microsoft first released Office for the Macintosh in 1985, including a version of Excel. Later, Microsoft also released its Office products on Windows. And as the only spreadsheet for Windows, Excel became the new standard.
Microsoft provided backward compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3. Excel used the same basic interface as Lotus 1-2-3, with “columns as letters” and “rows as numbers” and the
A1 cell reference model. Compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3 was so important that Excel even implemented a “year 1900” leap year bug from Lotus 1-2-3.
Despite its compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3, Excel has streamlined a few things. Range references were made easier by using a colon instead of the two periods. Some functions have been renamed to make them easier to remember, such as
AVERAGE instead of Lotus 1-2-3’s
AVG to calculate the mean of a list of numbers. Cell calculations have also changed, with each calculation now starting with
= instead of the
@ notation of Lotus 1-2-3 and VisiCalc.
So the next time you wonder why Excel does things in a particular one, think of Excel as a product of the spreadsheet history. Excel looks and works the way it does, because that’s how Lotus 1-2-3 did it. And Lotus 1-2-3 looked and acted like this, because that’s how VisiCalc worked. So really, Excel traces its design and even its interface back to VisiCalc from 1979.