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. VisiCalc sold over 700,000 copies in six years.
Conceived by Dan Bricklin, refined by Bob Frankston, developed by their company Software Arts, and distributed by Personal Software (later named VisiCorp), VisiCalc appeared in mid-1979. It was, in part, inspired by earlier "row and column" spreadsheet programs in widespread use on systems of several national timesharing companies. Notable among these products were Business Planning Language (BPL) from International Timesharing Corporation (ITS) and Foresight, from Foresight Systems. 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." However, these earlier timesharing spreadsheet programs were not completely interactive, nor did they run on personal computers.
According to Bricklin, he was watching a professor at Harvard Business School create a financial model on a blackboard. 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. The development of Visicalc took two months of work by Frankston and Bricklin during the winter of 1978–79. Their original intention was for it to fit in 16k, but this proved impossible and 32k became necessary (some 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 it was quickly dropped.
Ben Rosen speculated in July 1979 that "VisiCalc could someday become the software tail that wags (and sells) the personal computer dog". He was correct; because for the first 12 months it was only available for the Apple II computer, VisiCalc became a killer app for the Apple II because people purchased the $100 software first, then the $2000 computer they needed to use it. 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. Finally, Visicalc was ported to the IBM PC and became one of the initial pieces of software available for it on its 1981 launch.
Lotus Development, maker of Lotus 1-2-3, discontinued VisiCalc after acquiring Software Arts in 1985. Lotus estimated that about one million copies were sold during VisiCalc's lifetime, including 300,000 for the IBM PC.
Charles Babcock of InformationWeek wrote that, in retrospect, "VisiCalc was flawed and clunky, and couldn't do many things users wanted it to do." A host of other spreadsheet programs appeared with more sophisticated features, including the CP/M-based Supercalc (1980), Lotus 1-2-3 (1983), Microsoft Multiplan (1983), AppleWorks (1984), and Microsoft Excel (1985).
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
- "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."
- Coventry, Joshua (2006-11-02). "Interview with Dan Bricklin, Inventor of the Electronic Spreadsheet". Low End Mac. Retrieved 2007-03-02.
- McMullen, Barbara E. and John F. (1984-02-21). "Apple Charts The Course For IBM". PC Magazine. p. 122. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
- Langdell, James (1985-08-06). "VisiCalc Production Ends". PC Magazine. p. 33. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
- What's The Greatest Software Ever Written? - Technology News by TechWeb
- 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.
- 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