The history of Excel

The most recognisable spreadsheet application in the World

Today Microsoft Excel is one of the most popular spreadsheet application in the World. It is literally everywhere, in Schools, at Universities, it is probably installed on your personal computer and on your company’s computer.

Throughout the years Excel has become a powerful spreadsheet application, it allows user to extend its functionality by external add-ins or user-define functions (UDF) written in VBA, and with Excel 2016 (few years ago), Microsoft announced to build in some Business Intelligence (BI) functions. It led to increase interests in Excel.

Let’s take a look of how it all began and why Excel is the most recognisable spreadsheet application in the World.


Back in 1978, a Harvard Business School student, Dan Bricklin, had to solve various case studies. It required running the numbers, a very tedious job. He could either use a simple calculator or a clumsy mainframe software available at the time. None of it satisfied him, and because the first personal computers (like Apple) starting to emerge, he thought he could write software that could not only perform necessary calculations but also could visualise actual computation in an electronic spreadsheet form (in the accounting world, a spreadsheet is a large sheet of paper with lots of columns and rows, usually lays transactions, open items, business calculations etc.). Such an electronic spreadsheet could also carry various formulas like total sum.

VisiCalc nongraphical interface.

Imagine, if you have to calculate balance sheet ratios in many different scenarios, such a program would speed up solving it in a matter of seconds. Dan Bricklin saw the potential and wrote a program called VisiCalc using Apple Integer Basic language. Therefore, Dan Bricklin has become a father of electronic spreadsheet that runs on a personal computer. The prototype was created over a weekend on an Apple computer. It had only 5 columns and 20 rows (scrolling was not possible yet). It looked promising so Dan Bricklin recruited more experienced programmer Bob Frankston that today is known as co-creator of the commercial version of VisiCalc. He wrote the program in assembler language. It was way faster, it had better arithmetic and scrolling was available. However, VisiCalc required 20 kB of memory and due to limited memory of the low-end Apple II version (only 16 kB), VisiCalc was available on much more expensive Apple II with 32 kB memory.

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston decided to form a software company named Software Arts Corporation to commercialise VisiCalc. They made deal with Daniel ‘Dan’ Fylstra (graduated from MIT with MBA from Harvard) who at the time owned a company called Personal Software (later renamed to VisiCorp). Software Arts was responsible for creating the software and Personal Computer was responsible for publishing and marketing.

The name VisiCalc was not used at the developing stage (it was chosen later by Dan Fylstra). Dan Bricklin used Calcu-ledger and Calcu-paper in his homework paper. His assignment was to write a short business case on an advertising management issue (he chose to address the issue of advertising a computer program).

More detailed information on VisiCalc can be found on Dan’s web page: VisiCalc — the idea.

Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankson (IBM PC with VisiCalc running in the background).

After release in May 1979, it became a big hit and gave many accountants and firms reasons to purchase a personal computer. The VisiCalc became the first killer app because people purchased Apple II computer just to run the VisiCalc, which largely helped Apple to become a successful company (especially that very good sales of VisiCalc encouraged many sellers to bundle VisiCalc with the Apple II computer).

As history goes, in 1981, Software Arts made more than 12 million dollars due to commission from VisiCalc distributed by Personal Software, for which VisiCalc became a flagship product. However, the success would not last long…

Lotus 1–2–3 and macros

Once VisiCalc became a major hit that supported sales of Apple II computer, as one would expect, followers emerged and the market rapidly grew. In 1983, four years after the release of VisiCalc, Lotus 1–2–3 appeared on the market and unlike Microsoft Multiplan that came out in 1981, it outsold VisiCalc. Lotus Software (called also Lotus Development Corporation) was founded by Mitch Kapor, a… VisiCalc product manager from Personal Software. At the time, Lotus 1–2–3 had something that VisiCalc did not have, it introduced naming cells, cell ranges, add-ins and macros with syntax similar to an advanced BASIC language (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

Macros in Lotus 1–2–3 was different that it in today’s Excel or Google Sheets. Back in the ’80s, it allowed recording the sequence of pressed keys. Once macro was run by the user, the whole recorded sequence was executed and therefore, a time-consuming task could be automated. Later on, after macro language was extended, its popularity increased significantly and went beyond the imagination of the developers. Today with modern languages many users use macros very creatively, significantly extending the possibilities of the spreadsheets applications. Today, each spreadsheet application allow to put code behind the worksheet or extend functionality by the add-in.

Lotus 1–2–3 nongraphical interface.

Lotus 1–2–3 had the look and feel of VisiCalc, this allowed to make quick and easy migration, and because Lotus 1–2–3 was just better, it seemed that there was no future for VisiCalc. Eventually, Software Arts were acquired by Lotus Software and VisiCalc was discontinued (this should be no surprise). There were many programs similar to VisiCalc or Lotus 1–2–3, these were: TWIN, VP Planner, VIP Professional, PlannerCalc, Mulitiplan, just to name a few. Among them was also SuperCalc, released in 1980 for the CP/M system which was popular at the time. SuperCalc was one of the first spreadsheet application that was able to solve circular references. Similarities between programs eventually led to many lawsuits — interestingly, back in the ’80s, software companies did not patent software as they do it today, they usually used copyright protection only. Regardless, the outcome was that Lotus Software dominated the market until it was sold out by Microsoft’s Excel.

Lotus 1–2–3 is not good enough

Lotus 1–2–3 was able to dominate the market for a few years. In 1985 Microsoft released Excel for Apple Macintosh. In the ’80s most of the spreadsheets application had been written to run under IBM PC and operating systems like CP/M or DOS. Microsoft re-wrote Excel so it could run on IBM PC two years later. With strong competition from Excel for Windows and Quattro Pro for DOS, Lotus started losing the market. In 1989, Lotus Software introduce version 3.0 for Microsoft DOS and IBM OS/2. It was a very good received release with lots of new and desired functions like connection to an external database. However, it lacked high-quality printing and there was no graphical interface. Year later, in May 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0 that swiftly became a bestseller, an operating system that changed everything. Windows 3.0 rapidly gained popularity, but Lotus Software did not release their spreadsheet for Windows until 1991. Unfortunately for Lotus Software, their first Windows version of Lotus 1–2–3 was very poor. Growing competition from Borland’s Quattro Pro and Microsoft’s Excel for Windows caused Lotus market share to decline rapidly. In 1993 Lotus Software presented an improved version for Windows, but it was way too late as Microsoft Excel for Windows already dominated the market.

Lotus could not catch up with the competitors and did not deliver a high-quality product on time. Thus, Lotus Software spreadsheet application, Lotus 1–2–3 lost in favour of Microsoft’s Excel, but still had a much higher market share than Quattro Pro, despite Quattro Pro was better software than Lotus 1–2–3 (usually rated by most reviewers as superior to Lotus 1–2–3), at least for some time. However, the market was already won by Excel.

Quattro Pro nongraphical interface.

Borland’s Quattro Pro was very much like Lotus 1–2–3 only better for a lower price, as stated by Mike Falkner in PC Magazine (12/12/1987): a powerful spreadsheet with more features than 1–2–3 Release 2.01, yet fully compatible and at a better price. The first version was released in 1989 and despite it had a nongraphical interface, it allowed to work with multiple worksheets that could be moved and re-sized. Furthermore, it had superior graphics on Microsoft DOS, and unlike Lotus, Borland succeeded with the later version for Windows, so it could compete with Microsoft’s Excel. Their first version for Windows had even UI Builder, so user could create their interface. Quattro Pro could connect with Paradox, Borland’s database system. A few years later, in 1994, the Borland division responsible for making spreadsheet application was acquired by Novell for $145 million (source: New York Times), they later sold it to Corel.

Today, Quattro Pro is still on the market, it can be found on Corel WordPerfect Office Suite, and it is as good as nowadays Microsoft Excel. What is interesting, Quattro Pro allow using three different macro languages: Quattro Pro native macros, PerfectScript macros, and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).

Microsoft Excel

Excel first came out in 1985 for Apple Macintosh computers, two years later it was available on Microsoft Windows 2.0. However, because Windows 2.0 was not a popular system, Microsoft decided to shipped Excel 2.0 with a special version of Windows, which allowed to run only Excel program. This changed after Windows 3.0 was released. What is worth mentioning is that there was never a DOS version of Excel. Excel is the only software in history that was designed from the very beginning to have a graphical user interface, and because Microsoft wanted to keep numbering the same across all platforms, the first Windows edition of Excel was numbered 2.0. Microsoft’s Excel needed only three years to begin outselling their competition, a competition that delivered product based on the nongraphical interface.

Microsoft Excel 1.0 for Apple Macintosh.

Macintosh edition had no toolbars, even after porting to Windows in 1987 (only a simple menu bar was introduced). Regardless, Excel 2.0 received good reception. Microsoft continued improving the application which led to new features, Excel 3.0 and Excel 4.0 had among others: toolbars, drawing capabilities, outlining, add-in support and 3D charts, and auto-fill added in version 4.0. Since version 2.0 macro language was introduced. It was later replaced by the VBA (Visual Basic for Applications — language based on Visual Basic). The reason for the change was, the original macro language was too difficult for the users. Introducing VBA as a macro language in Excel 5.0 was a game-changer. It largely extended the ability to automate tasks and since this version user can now implement the so-called User-Defined Funtions (UDF) and use it in worksheets. VBA is a powerful addition to the Excel spreadsheet application, and what is more important, it provides a fully-featured IDE (Integrated Development Environment) that allow debugging the code (code debugging is extremely important). Microsoft also introduced a macro recorder that can produce VBA code, however, we should bear in mind that while it is convenient for an inexperienced user, or non-IT related user, it often leads to spaghetti code which is usually difficult to maintain and understand. Therefore, a macro recorder is not recommended.

Microsoft Excel 2.0 for Windows.

With VBA it is also possible to create your Window to communicate with the user. Various objects such as edit box, combo list, list box, radio button, picture and button can be placed on a form. VBA also allows using DLL’s (Dynamic Link Libraries) which only increase the possibilities of automation. Microsoft decided to implement support for class modules allowing some basic techniques of object-oriented programming (OOP). Therefore, we can use VBA and WinAPI (Windows Application Programming Interfaces) to make very complex automation that allows us to perform very time-consuming tasks. To some extent, we can make the workbook a semi-application that can operate with folders and files, desktop databases and SQL databases, other Excel workbooks, Web resources etc. This feature allows providing professional application.

After introducing VBA functionality, many automated workbooks became a target for macro viruses. This led to serious problems until antivirus programs began to detect these viruses. To minimise the risk, Microsoft added the ability to disable macros completely, to enable macros when opening a workbook (famous yellow bar) or to trust all macros signed using a trusted certificate.

Microsoft Excel 5.0 for Windows.

Throughout the years’ Excel was improved significantly. New functions had been added, some other functions had been upgraded and the user interface gone through serious facelifting. Since 1997, Microsoft offers Office Suite that contains Excel application. In 2007, Excel 12 (better known as Excel 2007) introduced the so-called ribbon bar. For experienced users, it was a bit of shock as they had to learn how to use it and where to find well-known functions and options. As for the newcomers, certainly, working with the ribbon bar was much more pleasant. Soon, many other applications also introduced ribbon bar.

Today’s Excel is a large and powerful application that can be extended either by add-ins (written in any language) or by VBA code behind the workbook. However, like any application, it has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that often it requires serious skills/experience to introduce efficient solution based on the spreadsheet. On the other side, it is usually less expensive than other solutions, it also allows integration with other Microsoft products like Access or SharePoint.

Microsoft almost own the market, there is some competition, but it is not significant. New products like Google Sheets with modern scripting language allowing automation encouraged Microsoft to introduce Online Excel. Now Microsoft is extending Excel with Power BI which is a cloud-based business analytics service.

It seems that Excel will be with us for a while…


One must admit, it has been quite a story, and yet we presented almost four decades on a couple of pages. The story of each company and its product can be largely extended. However, the overall conclusion is that you may have a very good idea, you may create a very good program, even a killer app, but that does not mean you will win and lead the market for good. Microsoft’s Excel dominates the market mostly because after poor Multiplan with the nongraphical interface, they decided to gamble and to release an electronic spreadsheet with a graphical interface. First, for Apple Macintosh (1985) and later for Windows 2.0 (1987), both received very good reviews and was ranked higher than Lotus 1–2–3. By the time competition was able to catch up with Microsoft’s Excel, improved Excel gained popularity significantly. Surely, Windows 3.0 contributed to this success greatly. However, it may turn out differently if Lotus and Borland would not wait so long, GUI (Graphical User Interface) was introduced on personal microcomputers by both Apple and Microsoft in the ’80s. Today Lotus 1–2–3 is discontinued and Quattro Pro is still developed but does not have a large market share. Microsoft was smarter.

Thank you for reading this article! Please leave a comment if you have any questions or have a different experience.

Software Developer at ITMagination

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