The use of spreadsheets is synonymous with digital software and large online databases. But the spreadsheet has been organizing various aspects of our lives for hundreds of years. Nowadays, the spreadsheet is such an integral part of any computer that you won’t often find one that doesn’t already have some sort of spreadsheet software pre-installed. In fact, the boom in computer usage over the years may not have been so prominent without online spreadsheets.
Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of spreadsheets and the vital role they play in our lives today.
Why is it called the spreadsheet?
The term spreadsheet might seem strange to those who associate it with only its digital capability. However, the spreadsheet is quite a literal reference to its original form hundreds of years ago.
Back then, a spreadsheet was a ledger book full of huge sheets of paper that would quite literally spread across the table. Rows and columns divided these sheets for manually entering data using a pen or pencil.
The original spreadsheet looks something like this:
Accountants would primarily use these ledger books for a variety of finance-related scenarios that handled a lot of data. A whole spreadsheet could cover aspects such as accounts receivable, investments, inventory and expenses. Everything accountants needed to know was right there in one place, so they could easily make important decisions.
The history of spreadsheets
From hundreds of years ago to now, the spreadsheet has evolved from its humble beginnings to something that’s powerful enough to help organize the operations of multi-billion dollar enterprises. After the rise of the digital revolution, its digital counterpart replaced the physical spreadsheet.
Let’s explore the transformation of this new spreadsheet form in more detail.
Where it all began
Even though in the early 70s the first computer had been created along with electronic spreadsheet software such as LANPAR, they didn’t gain as much traction. Even though LANPAR could replace paper-based spreadsheets entirely, the computers were simply too costly, bulky, and scarce to the public.
Instead, it wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s when the personal computer made its way into the market that the online spreadsheet really took off. VisCalc was the first spreadsheet program for personal computers. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston officially created VisCalc in 1979.
VisCalc came pre-installed on the Apple II computer, which ended up creating a lot of excitement amongst home users. This led to many other companies following suit, including IBM, which came up with their own product – the IBM PC. It was the spreadsheet utility that contributed to the skyrocket of the PC market that continued to thrive over the upcoming decades.
Spreadsheet software on personal computers was a monumental moment for many. However, during the early 80s, computers were still command-line operating machines. Spreadsheet programs such as SuperCalc, Multiplan and Lotus 1-2-3 were advanced enough; they just lacked the user-friendly nature like many operating systems at the time.
Then came along the graphical user interface (GUI). This made handling programs such as spreadsheets much easier. Visual components replaced the text-dominated features across the entire software. This completely transformed the user-friendly nature of the spreadsheet and exponentially increased its use among home users. Excel 1.0 was the very first GUI-based spreadsheet program that Microsoft specifically built for Macintosh. Later on, they transitioned Excel to the Windows environment, and there was no looking back. Since then, Microsoft Excel has been the most dominant spreadsheet software over the last two decades.
Although Microsoft Excel has remained the ultimate spreadsheet software even today, there remain several notable competitor spreadsheet applications on the market. These include Apple’s Numbers (part of the iWork productivity suite), NeoOffice spreadsheet and WPS spreadsheet. There have also been a number of non-proprietary, free, open-source alternative applications such as OpenOffice.org, Libre Office Calc, Calligra Sheets and Pyspread.
What’s happening with spreadsheets now?
Spreadsheets have come a long way over the past few decades, and they are continuing to become more intuitive, flexible and powerful than ever. In just the past few years, spreadsheet software now offers powerful analytical tools to turn data into useful insights. The most notable is their visual representation, that now helps businesses project future developments for their companies. Moreover, cloud-based spreadsheets are now a key part of many organizations. Google Sheets offers the most popular free cloud-based spreadsheet program that now ranks number 2 in the world, just behind Microsoft’s Excel. This has revolutionized the way businesses can work, allowing offline collaboration anywhere, increasing productivity for many.
The latest phenomenon in the spreadsheet world is the automation of spreadsheet processes. Now, there are various tools available on the market to automate the collection, input and analysis of your data into spreadsheets, so you don’t have to worry about a thing. The potential of these automation tools is almost limitless, too. Now, businesses can build and scale a variety of complex systems through the simple connection of spreadsheets. Businesses now have fully functioning CRM or ERP platforms, thanks to spreadsheets. With automation tools specialized in spreadsheets such as Sheetgo, you can build workflows that will continue to automate themselves for any period of time. With intelligence like this, almost anything will be possible in the future…
Spreadsheets have been a vital part of the online digital experience so far, and their constant evolution proves this genius software is here to stay.
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Editor’s note: This is a revised version of a previous post that has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.