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July 24, 2017

What the Big Deal with Excel?

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

The first big, breakthrough computer program was VisiCalc. No one expected it to hit the big time. The concept is bizarre genius. Even today, nearly 40 years after VisiCalc was first coded, the spreadsheet remains a hot topic of necessity and confusion.

Dan Bricklin coding the original VisiCalc, joined later by Bob Frankston. At the time, computers could do math and they had rudimentary calculator programs. Word processing was the computer’s application of choice. Yet, Bricklin envisioned a grid of cells where each one was a calculator. His program was a “visible calculator,” hence the name.

VisiCalc was only the first spreadsheet. The monster and category killer, was Lotus 1-2-3. It was essentially the same spreadsheet tool, but with more features and better functionality.

As Windows took over the PC planet, Microsoft introduced Excel. At first, it was just one of the many players, the dukes and lords trying to usurp King 1-2-3. I remember that Borland came up with an inexpensive spreadsheet called Quattro Pro. I used Lotus Improv, which was very clever software. But eventually, Microsoft dominated the market and Excel is king today.

Spreadsheets are everywhere. You see them in business for the obvious financial details, but they’re also used for non-numeric applications as well. For example, outlines I submit for my online training are written in Excel. The grid format works well for tracking progress. My invoices are spreadsheets.

I’m working on a project now where I’m writing scripts in a spreadsheet. I’m not using Excel; I’m using Google Sheets, but I’m still using the spreadsheet as a writing tool because my text and its supporting notes fit nicely into a grid pattern. That’s because, despite its numeric reputation, the versatility of a spreadsheet lies not with its mathematical prowess, but with its capability to deal with complex tabular information.

The consequence of all this power is that a lot of people need spreadsheet help. I get requests all the time for Excel help. Alas, I’ve written only one Excel book and it’s very old. The market is fierce and it’s too late now to break into it. If I did, however, I’d focus on the tables and cells part of a spreadsheet, not the numeric stuff. Yes, that’s important to know, but the power of the spreadsheet is in the table, not the numbers. That’s the big deal with Excel.


  1. I worked for a company where Excel was used as a Database (due to the find function), I think it was that it was ‘easier’ than using Access. Also there is the format of CSV, a flat ASCII file with data seperated with commas and carriage returns.

    Comment by glennp — July 24, 2017 @ 1:23 am

  2. At the magazine I edited, the owner/publisher used dBASE II for everything, even the financials. I wondered why he didn’t use a spreadsheet. So the same logic applies to a spreadsheet as a be-all for everything. I know a database is a grid as well, but I didn’t consider that aspect.

    Comment by admin — July 24, 2017 @ 7:46 am

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