NS Internet column
Written 19 July 1999 for the New Statesman
The only conspiracy theory worth entertaining is that the world is ruled by men with spreadsheets; but it's not very interesting because it's so obviously true. A spreadsheet is such a simple piece of software, yet hideously powerful. A spreadsheet is nothing more than a grid of cells, in which anything can be imprisoned until it has yielded the last possible fraction of profit. The butter on your breakfast tray in a hotel has been costed by a spreadsheet; so has the size of the room. When army officers leave the plans for promising wars in a laptop in the boot of a car, what they are actually abandoning is a spreadsheet with all their forces squeezed inside it. When a politician wants to know how many votes are in it for him, a spreadsheet will supply the answer. When you want to tabulate the hours worked by your subordinates, there is only one program to do it with; or when I need to keep track of what I have sold and to whom.
It is a piece of software that has changed the world more completely, I think, than even the Internet. The whole of the Eighties boom would have been impossible without spreadsheets, which made it possible for bored and greedy accountants to work out takeover bids for everything. None the less, it is about as interesting as the history of the petrol station, a similarly indispensable invention. So it was a delight to find a site which told the human story of the invention. It is all tremendously compressed in time., The spreadsheet is only a tiny bit younger than the personal computer. The first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was the first reason most people had to buy a computer. It was written in 1978 by a couple of programmers studying at Harvard Business school, Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin.
Bricklin dreamt it up. He had seen a demonstration of the first mouse, years before they appeared on consumer computers. In the stifling boredom of an MBA class, hunched over his TI calculator, he dreamt of a head-up display that would let him write numbers on the air, draw a ring round them, and have them added up automatically. From the daydreams of accountants, fortunes are made. He soon abandoned abandoned the head-up display, though generations of advertising men are still trying to persuade us that there is no real difference between being an accountant and a fighter pilot, given the right software. He used a screen, and wrote the thing on an Apple II, then the only personal computer you could buy. The joystick turned out to be, and in the end they went back to using a keyboard to navigate around; but the details hardly mattered. What was essential was that there was a grid on screen, into which you could put numbers or words, and the program would manipulate these as if it were intelligent paper. This is still the condition to which all worthwhile software aspires.
Bricklin's friend Bob Frankston wrote most of the program: there is a picture of the attic in which he toiled away one summer on Bricklin's current web site. There are disk drives about the size of a shoebox piled up, emerging from a sea of paper. Concentrate, and you can smell the faint vanilla flavour of heated circuit boards: three or four are sticking up, naked, from the back of an Apple keyboard. They came to a deal with a third friend to publish it, and for a couple of years they were kings of the world. Visicalc sold in millions. The accountants could take over the world.
Like all true revolutions, the spreadsheet devoured its children. Frankston and Bricklin had gone into partnership with a third friend, whose company, Software Arts, actually sold the program. In 1983, they were losing their grip on the market to Lotus 123, another spreadsheet, which did more than theirs and ran faster on the then new IBM PCs, so, scenting blood, naturally their partner sued them. Presumably his spreadsheet told him to. Both companies were ruined by the suit, and Lotus bought the remains of Visicalc. Bricklin went on to write and market another icon of our age: the demo program, which does everything a real program does except work: it displays a series of screen showing what would happen if the thing were finished.
He has a web site now. The whole of Visicalc for the IBM PC is free to download there, along with its six page manual, or reference card. It is tiny: only 27kb long, which means that it takes up as much space on disk as a one sentence document does if stored in Microsoft Word. The final irony is that Bricklin never even patented his idea, because no one, in those days, had realised how profitable software patents could be.