An example VisiCalc spreadsheet on an Apple II
|Stable release||VisiCalc Advanced Version / 1983|
|Operating system||Apple II, Apple SOS, CP/M, Atari 8-bit family, Commodore PET, TRS-DOS, DOS, HP series 80|
VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet computer program, originally released for the Apple II. It is often considered the application that turned the microcomputer from a hobby for computer enthusiasts into a serious business tool, and is considered the Apple II's killer app. VisiCalc sold over 700,000 copies in six years, and as many as 1 million copies over its history.
VisiCalc was ported to numerous platforms, both 8-bit and some of the early 16-bit systems. In order to do this, the company developed porting platforms that produced bug compatible versions. The company took the same approach when the IBM PC was launched, producing a product that was essentially identical to the original 8-bit Apple II version. Sales were initially brisk, with about 300,000 copies sold.
VisiCalc used the A1 notation in formulas.
When Lotus 1-2-3 was launched in 1983, taking full advantage of the expanded memory and screen of the PC, VisiCalc sales practically ended overnight. Sales imploded so rapidly that the company was soon insolvent. Lotus Development purchased the company in 1985, and immediately ended sales of VisiCalc and the company's other products.
VisiCalc traces its history to a presentation that Dan Bricklin was watching while attending Harvard Business School. The professor was creating a financial model on a blackboard that was ruled with lines to create a table, and formulas and data were being written into the cells. When the professor found an error or wanted to change a parameter, he had to erase and rewrite a number of sequential entries in the table. Bricklin realized that he could replicate the process on a computer using an "electronic spreadsheet" to view results of underlying formulae.
Bricklin was joined by Bob Frankston, and the two worked on VisiCalc for two months during the winter of 1978–79, forming Software Arts. Bricklin wrote, "[W]ith the years of experience we had at the time we created VisiCalc, we were familiar with many row/column financial programs. In fact, Bob had worked since the 1960s at Interactive Data Corporation, a major timesharing utility that was used for some of them and I was exposed to some at Harvard Business School in one of the classes." Bricklin is referring to the variety of report generators that were in use at that time, including Business Planning Language (BPL) from International Timesharing Corporation (ITS) and Foresight, from Foresight Systems. However, these earlier timesharing programs were not completely interactive, nor did they run on personal computers.
Their original intention was to fit the program into 16k, but this proved impossible, and 32k became necessary. Sone additional features they wanted like a split text/graphics screen still had to be omitted for space reasons. However, Apple eventually began shipping all Apple IIs with 48k following a drop in RAM prices and this was no longer an issue. The initial release supported cassette storage, but this was quickly dropped in favour of floppy disks. Distribution was taken up by Personal Software (later named VisiCorp), and VisiCalc appeared on the market in mid-1979 after an official launch on June 4 at the National Computer Conference.
The power of the VisiCalc concept was noticed immediately. Ben Rosen speculated in July 1979 that "VisiCalc could someday become the software tail that wags (and sells) the personal computer dog". For the first 12 months it was only available for the Apple II computer, and became that platform's killer app. There are widespread stories of people buying $2000 computers to run the $100 software. VisiCalc was unusually easy to use; Apple's developer documentation cited it as an example of software with a simple user interface. Bricklin and Frankston developed ports for the Atari 800 and Commodore PET, both of which could be done easily due to sharing 6502 CPUs with the Apple II and being able to recycle large portions of code. The PET version was widely criticized for having a very small amount of worksheet space due to the developers' insistence on including their own custom DOS which consumed a large amount of computer memory. Other versions followed for the HP-150 and TRS-80 Model I and II.
Another, more complex, port was made to the IBM PC, and it was one of the first commercial packages available when it shipped in 1981. It quickly became a best-seller on this platform, in spite of being severely limited to be compatible with the versions from the 8-bit platforms. It is estimated that 300,000 copies were sold on the PC, bringing total sales to about 1 million copies.
Several competitors appeared in the market, notably SuperCalc and Multiplan, each of which gained a following but could not reduce VisiCalc's market dominance. A more dramatic change occurred with the 1983 launch of Lotus 1-2-3, written by a former VisiCalc employee. Unlike the PC version of VisiCalc, 1-2-3 was written to take full advantage of the PC's increased memory, screen and performance. Yet it deliberately attempted to remain as compatible as possible with VisiCalc, including copying its menu structure as far as possible to allow VisiCalc users to easily migrate to 1-2-3. The program was an immediate runaway success, and sales of VisiCalc ended almost overnight.
In its 1980 review, BYTE wrote "The most exciting and influential piece of software that has been written for any microcomputer application is VisiCalc". It concluded, "VisiCalc is the first program available on a microcomputer that has been responsible for sales of entire systems"; Creative Computing's review the same year similarly concluded, "for almost anyone in business, education, or any science-related field it is ... reason enough to purchase a small computer system in the first place". Compute! reported, "Every Visicalc user knows of someone who purchased an Apple just to be able to use Visicalc". Antic wrote, "VisiCalc isn't as easy to use as prepackaged home accounting programs, because you're required to design both the layout and the formulas used by the program. Because it is not pre-packaged, however, it's infinitely more powerful and flexible than such programs. You can use VisiCalc to balance your checkbook, keep track of credit card purchases, calculate your net worth, do your taxes—the possibilities are practically limitless."
- Triumph of the Nerds, A documentary hosted by Robert X. Cringely that featured the creators of VisiCalc and their contribution as the first killer app for the personal computer.
- Timeline of computing 1950–1979
- Dan Bricklin's VisiCalc History--The Idea
- Coventry, Joshua (2006-11-02). "Interview with Dan Bricklin, Inventor of the Electronic Spreadsheet". Low End Mac. Retrieved 2007-03-02.
- "VisiCalc: User-Defined Problem Solving Package". The Intelligent Machine Journal (InfoWorld Media Group) 1 (9): p. 22. June 11, 1979. ISSN 0199-6649.. "The formal introduction of VisiCalc is scheduled for the National Computer Conference, being held June 4–7, in New York City."
- McMullen, Barbara E. and John F. (1984-02-21). "Apple Charts The Course For IBM". PC Magazine. p. 122. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- Meyers, Joe; Tognazzini, Bruce (1982). Apple IIe Design Guidelines. Apple Computer. p. 22.
- Langdell, James (1985-08-06). "VisiCalc Production Ends". PC Magazine. p. 33. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
- Ramsdell, Robert E (November 1980). "The Power of VisiCalc". BYTE. pp. 190–192. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- Green, Doug (August 1980). "VisiCalc: Reason Enough For Owning A Computer". Creative Computing. p. 26. Retrieved 18 October 2013.
- Budge, Joseph H. (July-August 1980). "VISICALC: A Software Review". Compute!. p. 19. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
- Kattan, Joseph (June 1984). "Product Reviews: VisiCalc". Antic 3 (2): 80. Retrieved April 15, 2011.
- "What's The Greatest Software Ever Written?"
- Grad, B. (2007). "The Creation and the Demise of VisiCalc". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29 (3): 20–20. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2007.4338439.
- Campbell-Kelly, M. (2007). "Number Crunching without Programming: The Evolution of Spreadsheet Usability". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 29 (3): 6–8. doi:10.1109/MAHC.2007.4338438.
- Dan Bricklin's Own VisiCalc Website – With history information as well as downloadable PC version
- Implementing VisiCalc – By Bob Frankston, on his website
- Was VisiCalc the "first" spreadsheet? – By Dan Bricklin, on his website
- Three Minutes: Godfathers Of The Spreadsheet[dead link] – PC World interview with the creators of VisiCalc
- Techdirt: What If VisiCalc Had Been Patented?
- TRS-80 and more