Why Excel Appears to be like The Means it Does

Why Excel Appears to be like The Means it Does

Microsoft Excel for Windows (detail)

The spreadsheet you’re in all probability most accustomed to is Microsoft Excel. However have you ever ever questioned why Excel appears to be like and acts the best way that it does? Why does Excel organize information in a grid of cells? Why are columns recognized by letters, and rows by numbers? The reply, like most issues in IT, is due to compatibility.


The primary “laptop spreadsheet” as we acknowledge it was VisiCalc, by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in 1979. Initially launched for the Apple II private laptop, VisiCalc additionally made its approach to DOS and the IBM Private Pc in 1981. You may monitor most of Excel’s design selections again to VisiCalc.

VisiCalc for DOS
VisiCalc for DOS

Earlier than the pc spreadsheet, accountants tabulated numbers on paper worksheets. Every worksheet had dividers for columns, and contours to outline rows. VisiCalc additionally displayed values in columns and rows, labeling every column with a letter from A to BK (63 columns) and every row with a quantity from 1 to 254 . VisiCalc recognized a person cell with a mixture of the column letter and the row quantity, so A1 was the cell on the first column and first row, whereas D12 was the cell within the fourth column and twelfth row.

With VisiCalc, you entered a grid of numbers, equivalent to journey bills or a division finances, and carried out operations on them. You possibly can add up a variety of numbers utilizing the SUM operate, or discover the minimal worth utilizing the MIN operate.

Just about the identical means you’d use spreadsheets in the present day, with a number of minor variations. For instance, VisiCalc used the ellipses notation from arithmetic, representing a variety as A1...A10. Additionally completely different from fashionable spreadsheets, VisiCalc used the @ image to point capabilities, equivalent to @SUM(A1...A10) to calculate a sum throughout a variety.

VisiCalc turned a “must-have” utility. Companies in every single place bought private computer systems operating VisiCalc. However reputation breeds competitors. Lotus Company launched its Lotus 1-2-3 in 1983, and shortly displaced VisiCalc because the market chief in laptop spreadsheets.

Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS
Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS

One cause Lotus 1-2-3 was capable of overtake the competitors is as a result of it didn’t require customers to re-learn the spreadsheet. Like VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 labeled columns with letters, rows with numbers, and cells with the A1 syntax. Even the capabilities from Lotus 1-2-3 had been the identical as these in VisiCalc, together with the @ to begin a operate reference.

Lotus 1-2-3 additionally streamlined a number of issues, making the spreadsheet simpler to make use of. One notable instance is the right way to specify a variety. As a substitute of the “three dots” ellipses in VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 used solely two dots. Thus to calculate a sum throughout the cells A1 to A10 , you entered  @SUM(A1..A10).

And Lotus 1-2-3 added new options, equivalent to the flexibility to chart information. And because the laptop spreadsheet that was “All of VisiCalc, and extra,” Lotus 1-2-3 overtook VisiCalc available in the market.

Compatibility was key for Lotus 1-2-3 to overhaul VisiCalc, and that didn’t go unnoticed by different spreadsheets. Even the shareware spreadsheet As-Straightforward-As by TRIUS supplied tight compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3. But Lotus 1-2-3 remained dominant all through the Eighties.

As-Easy-As for DOS
As-Straightforward-As for DOS

It wasn’t till Microsoft developed purposes for Apple’s Macintosh graphical person interface that the spreadsheet panorama modified. In 1985, Microsoft first launched Workplace for the Macintosh, together with a model of Excel. Later, Microsoft additionally launched its Workplace merchandise on Home windows. And because the solely spreadsheet for Home windows, Excel turned the brand new customary.

Microsoft Excel for Windows
Microsoft Excel for Home windows

Microsoft was cautious to offer backwards compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3. Excel used the identical fundamental interface as Lotus 1-2-3, with “columns as letters” and “rows as numbers,” and the A1 cell reference mannequin. Lotus 1-2-3 compatibility was so essential that Excel even applied a “yr 1900” Leap 12 months bug from Lotus 1-2-3.

Regardless of its compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3, Excel did streamline some issues. Vary references had been made simpler, utilizing a colon as an alternative of the 2 dots. Some capabilities had been renamed to make them simpler to recollect, equivalent to AVERAGE as an alternative of Lotus 1-2-3’s AVG to calculate the imply of a listing of numbers. Cell calculations modified, too, now beginning every calculation with = as an alternative of the @ notation from Lotus 1-2-3 and VisiCalc.

Microsoft Excel for Windows (detail)
Microsoft Excel for Home windows (element)

So the following time you marvel why Excel does issues in a selected, take into consideration Excel as a product of spreadsheet historical past. Excel appears to be like and acts the best way it does as a result of that’s how Lotus 1-2-3 did issues. And Lotus 1-2-3 appeared and acted that means as a result of that’s how VisiCalc operated. So actually, Excel traces its design and even its interface again to VisiCalc from 1979.

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