QZ&A

Dan Bricklin invented the spreadsheet—but don’t hold that against him

You may not know Dan Bricklin, but you are almost certainly familiar with his work. It’s fair to say that the Boston-based programmer is as important a figure in the early days of personal computing as contemporaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Bricklin created what could be considered the first killer app: the electronic spreadsheet.

Bricklin dreamt up the idea in 1978, while a student at the Harvard Business School. Famously, he used an early prototype of the program to ace an assignment about producing financial projections for various scenarios of a corporate marketing campaign. He wowed the professor and fellow classmates with the breadth, depth, and detail of his analysis, unusual in the time of hand-held calculators.

The following year, VisiCalc—short for “visible calculator”—shipped for the Apple II. (Other potential names included Electroledger, Calculedger, Calcupaper, and Compulator.) Influential analyst Ben Rosen saw an early copy of the software and heaped praise on it, noting that “it could well become one of the largest-selling personal computer programs ever.”

Indeed, Steve Jobs said that VisiCalc was “what propelled the Apple II to the success it achieved.” Put simply, it was what convinced many people to buy a computer for the first time.

VisiCalc refcard
A page from VisiCalc’s 1979 reference card. (IBM/Bricklin.com)

Early adopters of the spreadsheet program seemed to possess “magic powers,” Bricklin told Quartz. The spreadsheet—a simple, flexible, and incredibly powerful tool—quickly became the lingua franca of finance.

Spreadsheets are now loved and loathed in equal measure. Their flexibility is useful, but also dangerous. Spreadsheets have been at the center of billion-dollar trading scandals and misguided economic policy prescriptions, among many other snafus. The commonly held wisdom, backed by research, is that nine out of 10 spreadsheets contain errors, a sobering thought considering how far and wide the files are used in business, government, and beyond.

For Bricklin, the spreadsheet is history. Since software patents were rare when he created VisiCalc, rival spreadsheet programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel quickly emerged and cornered the market. (You can still download a working version of VisiCalc from 1981, which weighs in at a scant 27 kilobytes.)

Bricklin later developed highly regarded prototyping software, early blogging tools, and a note-taking app for tablets. Now, as chief technology officer for Alpha Software, he is helping companies build mobile apps, the next frontier in personal computing.

Few developers can claim that their code has had as huge an impact as Bricklin’s. A plaque at the Harvard classroom where the program was conceived—now known as the Bricklin Classroom—commemorates the “original ‘killer app’ of the information age [that] forever changed how people use computers in business.”

He spoke with Quartz from Boston about his role in computing history, and his thoughts on what comes next. The transcript of the interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: Do you ever step back and marvel at how ubiquitous the spreadsheet has become?

Bricklin: It’s kind of cool. It’s like whoa, we haven’t thought of something better yet.

Before I did VisiCalc, I was also involved in the early days of screen-based word processing. You didn’t think that almost all writing and interpersonal communication would eventually be done using the general ideas we were working on. That meant that computers would be everywhere. In those days, they were god-awful expensive. It hadn’t happened in any other sphere, except in certain parts of accounting at large businesses.

What was the secret of its success?

I came out of the word processing and typesetting worlds, where every keystroke counted. I was competing against the back of the envelope. If it took longer to input something on a spreadsheet, you would have done it by hand instead. So I tried to make it as simple as minimal as possible. It was really important to make it easy to use.

Lots of people were building software for financial forecasting using rows, columns, formulas, and all, but not put together the way the spreadsheet was, aimed for ease of use with a general-purpose, two-dimensional, word-processing-like layout.

General-purpose tools have their advantages. They become widely used because you can use them for a wide range of tasks. You only have to learn the one tool. And often people figure out how to use those tools for things they weren’t designed for.

Like what?

Early on, consultants told us they used it to help lay out slot machines on a casino floor. And doctors did calculations, too. I didn’t know about those applications, or that those people would have even thought to use it that way.

People would tell me, “I was doing all this work, and coworkers thought I was amazing. But I was really goofing off because it only took an hour and then I took the the rest of the day off. People thought I was a wunderkind but I was using this tool.”

Those were the magical days before spreadsheets became popular.

Yes, they had these magic powers, and were able to move up in their organizations because of them. They were people who were able to figure out to use a tool for a specific problem, even if it wasn’t advertised to do it. That made them innovators—it may be correct that they got those promotions.

It also speaks to the flexibility and power of a seemingly simple tool.

There are many tools that seem simple—think of a pencil and paper—that are very complicated to build. A pencil is not a trivial thing to make.

The spreadsheet interface had to be sparse initially, because we didn’t have much space. If you didn’t learn some tricks, they weren’t obvious right away.

Like how early spreadsheet users didn’t realize that the program wasn’t just a new way to organize numbers, but it also did calculations.

Yes, some people glued calculators to the sides of their keyboards.

When they figured out about the calculations, that must’ve been quite the revelation.

Businesspeople could see the value of a $5,000 Apple II with an expensive printer and a Sony television. That was a lot of money in those days. You could buy a pretty good car for that amount.

The personal computer gave you 100 times or more power than doing it by hand. It validated the personal computer for business.

In that sense, the history of the spreadsheet is in some ways the history of Apple.

For various historical reasons, Apple lucked out and had VisiCalc to themselves for a year. It was the only place to get it for a while.

The Apple II also had good games, so there was another reason to buy it. But the first taste for many people was VisiCalc, and it helped them sell the machine, which provided the money that went into the development of the Macintosh. It was a catalyst.

Apple has been through a lot to get to where it is today. It’s nice to have kept it alive—we helped it at a time when it needed helping. Because of VisiCalc, the Apple II was the first computer for many financial people. They had a soft spot for Apple.

Not everyone is so complimentary about spreadsheets now. As the person responsible for bringing them into the world, do you ever get blowback from people who see spreadsheets as a byword for drudgery, or who consider them dangerously prone to errors?

I honed it for uses I thought were good. I was not carefully making sure it wouldn’t be used for bad. On balance, I hope the spreadsheet has been good.

There are people who complain about “spreadsheet thinking” and talk about errors—but if they were doing the same things by hand, do you think it would be better? The spreadsheet doesn’t get in the way of you making mistakes. What it does prevent is you making addition and subtraction errors, which we did in the past.

Do you ever get sick of talking about spreadsheets?

No, it’s always fun. Because the DNA of VisiCalc is still around, that’s why you are asking me questions today. Personally speaking, that is just wonderful.

Good. So, do you use spreadsheets every day?

Not every day. I use them when I need to run numbers. But I’m a developer and I’m basically sitting in text editors writing code. I’m not a power user.

What goes through your mind when you load up a spreadsheet these days?

There’s a warm feeling.

What advice do you have for developers trying to come up with the next killer app?

We need both general-purpose and specific tools. I’m a little concerned with Apple’s message of “there’s an app for that,” which implies that everything is vertical.

This is how Steve Jobs thought about a lot of things—computers should be able to figure out things for you, rather than providing you with a general-purpose tool that you could figure out how to use on your own. But by restricting what apps can do, and how they coordinate, they are slowly stripping [the general-purpose idea] away.

You’ve seen a number of tech booms and busts. How does the current euphoria rate? Is there a bubble?

Speculation is always there, with intermittent reinforcement. That’s how capitalism works.

The things people say about the future sometimes turn out to be right, but the timing is wrong. In an interview [in 1926], Nikola Tesla said something about a pocket computer that basically described FaceTime or Skype on a smartphone. Eventually, we got to it.

I also love the story of Helen Greiner. As a child, she saw R2-D2 in the Star Wars movies and was heartbroken that it wasn’t real. She went on to co-found iRobot, whose products really can disarm bombs.

When the technology gets there and it all comes together, it’s the most amazing thing. I lucked out by being in the right place in the right time. People bet on this, and some succeed.

What ideas may sound crazy now but will someday become commonplace?

I wish I knew, so I could invest in them.

Right now, we have people who are moving around when they work. A desktop computer is not appropriate for them. Doctors, nurses, boiler repairmen… those people are not computerized in many ways. The smartphone and tablet are now light enough and powerful enough to replace paper. I’m playing in that space now.

You’re seeing the use of handheld computers in the middle of everything we do. It’s not just the computing but the communications and services we can tie into. It’s a very fertile area.

One thing that doesn’t work very well on mobile is the spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets are designed for heavy analysis. That’s not what you do when you’re walking around—you just want the answer.

And so the spreadsheet comes to the rescue of the desktop computer, once again.

The spreadsheet has kept the desktop alive, in many ways.

So is there an equivalent to the spreadsheet that will someday revolutionize the mobile world?

What types of tools do we need on a mobile device? Entering lots of data into a spreadsheet is not it. One of the most interesting ways to input data on the mobile is the camera. It can hold so many types of information that we can’t express through other means, including emotional content. That is an area of interest. I’m sure there’s space there.

Clever people, like those who first figured out how to use spreadsheets for their business, are going to look at the capabilities of these devices and come up with new services. A lot of it is trial and error.

The spreadsheet happened to be the right program, on the right hardware, at the right time. We’re going to see this over and over again. Things that didn’t work in the past will become ubiquitous and valuable.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search