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The Inventors of Spreadsheets Know Exactly Why They’re Irreplaceable

January 11, 2016 Mitchell Buchanan  
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A school like MIT has had so many illustrious graduates that it would be dangerously easy to overlook someone like Doug Kunder.

Even in a year which marked the 30th anniversary of Microsoft Excel, there probably hasn’t been enough credit given to Kunder, recently profiled in MIT’s Technology Review. Though he originally designed Excel as a Mac-only program in the early 1980s, Kunder told the magazine he was not only surprised at how it wound up taking over the PC world, but how true the software has stayed to his original vision:

“Of course many features have been added, but the basics of the spreadsheet are the same. And I still use spreadsheets that I created 25 to 30 years ago.”

This is a theme we’ve touched on a number of times on this blog over the course of 2015, but it says something when the “stick with what works” philosophy of Excel applies as much to its creator as it does to finance departments around the world.

The Power of General-Purpose Tools

Excel was not the first spreadsheet, of course. In fact, Quartz recently published its own Q&A with Daniel Bricklin, the creator VisiCalc. Indeed, VisiCalc may have ultimately lost the market share war, but it definitely set the stage for how powerful and widespread spreadsheets would become.

Bricklin, who still lives in Boston, gave a great explanation of why the way we use spreadsheets now once looked like magic to those first adopters.

“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,” he recalled. “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.”

Bricklin doesn’t actually single out corporate performance management (CPM) software as an evolution of spreadsheets, but he doesn’t have to; it’s become obvious for an ever-increasing number of companies. So too is that adding enterprise-grade functionality to programs like Excel makes them widely valuable well outside of finance in areas like sales, marketing, IT and program planning.

The history of IT is filled with stories of ideas that flopped or were ahead of their time. As we look to the new year ahead, let’s raise a glass to the innovators who helped make spreadsheets the undisputed, indispensable business tools they’ve become.

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