Note: the article was written in 2019, and Microsoft Excel celebrates its 35th anniversary in this.

What can a tool that has stood the test of time teach us in the era of “software that devours the world”? In this article I want to show you how the fundamental principles that underpin Excel can be used in the “unsinkable” technologies of the future.

2015: I love you
2016: I love you
2017: I love you
2018: I love you
2019: I love you

One line for every year that I am in love with... Microsoft Excel.

This may surprise you, but I'm far from the first person who admits his feelings for Excel. There are even those who write Excel love letters in by Excel itself or explicitly acknowledged as "ex-addiction". Today I would like to talk about a tool that has passed the test of time.

Year in Excel


As is often the case in a relationship, Excel and I have been familiar for some time. But the “thunder struck” only in 2015. I often joke that it was a year of spreadsheets - I spent so much time with them then.

I worked as a business analyst and carried out calculations for the Fortune 500 list. I remember very well how on the first working day someone told me: “pay attention, our experienced employees do not touch the mouse when working with tables.” The habit of using the ctrl + [key] combinations entered their muscle memory. Soon I became one of them.

Previously, it seemed to me that the ability to plot a trend graph at several points is almost the peak of skill. And only then I realized the real power of Excel. With it, we built sophisticated models to predict anything from oil prices to cannibalization in real estate. And with all the complexity and versatility of our work, one single program coped.

I worked there for 11 months. I think about 1500 hours of them I spent only on the tables. For comparison - in total for that period I "worked" a little less than 6000 hours - and this, taking into account the time for sleep, food and everything else that is not related to Excel. Yes, yes, you can be sure that I also made these calculations using the table. I want you to understand: I do not regret a single minute and just want to reflect a little.

Now, as soon as a technology becomes an integral part of our life, we immediately rush to glorify its creators. New gadgets and SaaS companies are prophesied that they will change the course of history. Meanwhile, venture capitalists are looking for someone else to invest their millions in. See for yourself: Musk, Zuckerberg, Page and Bezos have become as famous as show business stars.

But I would like to tell you about Daniel Bricklin and Doug Clander. And about the program, which was invented more than 30 years ago, but still “lives” on hundreds of millions of personal computers. Decades later, I want to talk about Excel.

Talk about the omnipresent


Excel is one of the most successful products in software history. - Andy Lee, Partner Software Development Engineer at Excel
Whether you like Excel or not, it's silly to argue that it has been a vital tool for many modern companies for many years. Regarding market penetration, Microsoft claims that every fifth adult person on earth uses Excel. Even despite the success of its competitors (for example, Google Sheets), about 1.2 billion Microsoft Office licenses are currently relevant. And so that you fully understand the situation: in 2016 MS Office "earned" $ 13.8 billion, and GSuite - $ 1.3 billion.

But the funniest thing - we are now talking about software that was invented more than 30 years ago. And despite a bunch of updates and a database of 476 functions, the original Excel concept and even some pieces of the original code have survived to modern releases - we will return to this.
Do you think there is no code 15-20-30 years old left there? It is full there! - Andy Lee, Partner Software Development Engineer at Excel
It would seem that it’s time for the old man to retire, but instead he is thriving! A search for the Excel keyword in Udemy yields about 10,000 results. For comparison, according to Javascript is about 7000 ( note: now the numbers have changed a bit, but Excel still wins with a slight margin ). In addition, one of the most popular skills in jobs - the requirement to know Excel is present in every third. And if you recall the essence of spreadsheets and treat them as independent programs, it turns out that Excel is also the most popular development environment in the world.
Microsoft Excel is the most familiar, flexible and widespread business application in the world. This was made possible thanks to his ability to adapt to any business process. - “The history of Microsoft Excel.”
Crazy backward compatibility (30+ years!), A smooth learning curve and an almost perfect “implementation” made Excel the undisputed market leader. Many companies cannot even dream of such superiority over competitors. And Excel can be used right out of the box: no dependencies, no settings. It just works.

And despite the fact that Microsoft has released hundreds of other applications since Excel, CEO Satya Nadella considers it an extraordinary phenomenon:
Imagine a world without Excel. Personally, I can’t do this. - Satya Nadella

Changing the tide of history


It can be said that Microsoft Excel has introduced tectonic changes both in people's lives and in the work of many companies. Personally, I do everything in the tables. I follow my life, build lists, plan expenses and much more. The beauty of spreadsheets is that they can find dozens of different uses.
I don’t know exactly how people work with Excel - because it can be used in a lot of different ways - Terrence Juan, Partner Development Manager at Excel
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YouTube Channel Excel is Fun

Essentially, Excel solves - and has always solved - a very important task. It just takes something that only a select few could work with before - sophisticated analytics and calculations - and makes it accessible and even fun for the whole world.
Excel has truly changed the way many companies work by simplifying the process of graphing, making decisions, and performing complex calculations. - Derek Burney, Corp VP Data and BI, VP - Data and Business Intelligence
And although Excel itself did not “invent” the spreadsheet format - we will talk about this a bit later - it became a locomotive that made dynamic calculations mainstream. Zuckerberg did not invent social networks, Musk was not the first to offer private space flights. Their merit is that they took these ideas and pushed them to uncharted boundaries, just like Excel was able to bring the concept of spreadsheets into the big world.

The emergence of MS Excel defined the era - he “created thousands of startups and stimulated millions of layoffs.” Thanks to this program, completely new industries appeared. Just look at how many new posts have appeared in the world of business analytics - even the one in which I worked most of 2015. These professions did not exist until Excel gave us the opportunity to process and visualize data - to play "what will happen if...".
A lot of different data is stored on the servers of corporations and organizations. You must be able to view this data, change it, analyze it in different ways in order to ultimately benefit. Excel plays a huge role in the world of business intelligence because it is a program for people. They really understand her. - Derek Burney, Corp VP Data and BI, VP - Data and Business Intelligence
Entire companies are built on the powerful shoulders of Excel. And where Excel is not a vital component, it is simply important and necessary.But the most incredible thing is that in 2019 there are companies whose main "competitor" is Excel.

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A bunch of new technologies are emerging. Companies earn millions on them, but people are still drawn to Excel. According to Gartner from 2015, more than half of IT companies “fully” or “predominantly” use spreadsheets for analytics. This proves that [at least then] Excel de facto competes with the whole industry of data analysis, but does not limit its users to only one scope. You can build task lists, keep track of workouts, record purchases... Excel was used by its own developers to compile a guest list of the 30-year-old program anniversary .
Tables are used for everything from lightweight databases to personal schedules. From collecting information to analyzing it. Even for complex business processes. These are just basic examples, not a complete list of why spreadsheets are used. - Hyalmar Gislason

Imagine a world without Excel


I once flew a plane and talked with a fellow traveler. Suddenly he grabbed me by the shirt: “So you work in Excel? I'm crazy about excel! - John DeVaan, [ex] Sr. VP Windows Development
People like me don't just work in Excel. They really love him. When I was collecting materials for this article, I wondered one question: what would we use if Excel would pick up and disappear?

Of course, its basic functions can be replaced. But what to do with its exclusive features, alternatives to which you might not find? I really wonder how many companies around the world will be forced to pause if one fine morning Nadella wakes up and decides to "kill" Excel. How many companies will not be able to work normally?
There are financial companies that use Excel to process massive amounts of data. They conduct simulations in it to predict world events. They do not just use Excel as a tool for writing formulas. They actually build their own solutions on top of Excel. And many of these add-ons have been working for 10-15 years. - Terrence Juan, Partner Development Manager at Excel
When Heiten Shah asked Twitter users without which application or product they won’t be able to live, old Excel outstripped by the number of likes a stylish “young man” like Zoom, Slack, Notion, 1Pass and Webflow

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Excel history


34 years of magic


I like the history of Excel no less than the product itself. If you go back 34 years, it turns out that the whole world has changed a lot since then. But not the fundamental principles of this program.

Before you start throwing slippers at me, I want to say: Microsoft did NOT invent spreadsheets. And then who did this? Thanks for them, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston.

Dan is often called the "father of spreadsheets." It was he, together with Bob Frankston, who in 1979 developed the first such application: VisiCalc - Visible Calculator. Dan was the first to introduce the concept of a grid table, which is still present unchanged in all such applications. If you type in “Who made Excel?” On Google, you will see Dan’s name, although he didn’t work for Microsoft for a day.
I imagined a magic blackboard on which, if you erase one number and write another, everything will be counted by itself. - Dan Bricklin, TEDxBeaconStreet 2016
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The invention of spreadsheets has given impetus to the entire personal computer industry. Steve Jobs once said that it was VisiCalc’s Apple II that owes its success.
In fact, there were two “real explosions” that pushed the entire industry forward. The first occurred in 1977, and it was spreadsheets - Steve Jobs
This was the beginning of WYSIWYG, although we have long been used to taking it for granted. The work of Bricklin and Frankston was spotted by another company, Lotus Software, which was later acquired by IBM. The new product, based on the VisiCalc idea, was named Lotus 1-2-3 and entered the market in 1983.

At the same time, Microsoft was already developing its predecessor Excel, the Multiplan program (code-named Electronic Paper). She had to compete with Lotus 1-2-3 for a place in the market. John DeVaan, one of the developers of Excel 1.0, recalled that in 1984 the spreadsheet market was 100% occupied by Lotus 1-2-3 working under MS-DOS.

Count or die


Microsoft decided to invest in the development of a new product, codenamed Odyssey. Knowing the current situation of Microsoft, it is difficult to imagine her as an outsider, whose project had every chance of failure. The Excel development team consisted of only four people: Mike Coss, Jab Blumenthal, Doug Clander and John DeVaan. The team also included Steve Hazlerig, Ed Ringness, Charles Simoni and John Hopper. To get a better understanding of the spirit of that era, consider this: only two years have passed since the creation of Microsoft Mouse.

Since (what an irony!) Lotus 1-2-3 beat Microsoft on their own field - MS-DOS, reluctantly, Microsoft decided to develop a product for Mac. Lotus wasn’t there yet, and the platform itself had the necessary capabilities. The decision was not easy. When it was finally accepted, Doug Clander left the team.
Imagine: the only person who has a complete understanding of one of the components of the product just leaves. In order to work on the farm [.]. - Jab Blumenthal
When I left in the middle of development, there were some problems. Instead of writing everything down on paper, I gave a three-day presentation on Excel architecture... just in case, I even made a video. - Doug Clander

Fortunately for all of us, Doug soon thought better of it and returned from the meager salad fields back to the office to create one of the most important components of Excel 1.0. Doug often speaks of Excel as "his child." According to his calculations, he got a job at Microsoft somewhere between the 45th and 65th employees.
I literally lived in the office, slept for a couple of hours and immediately returned for the code. I remember how much at night it blew out of the window in the office - Doug Clander
Perhaps one of the most important things in Excel 1.0 was the ability to automatically recalculate values. It was her who developed Clander. The unofficial motto of the team after Klander introduced his "smart recount" was the phrase "recount or die." Instead of re-reading the whole sheet after each change, the Clander algorithm affected only the necessary cells. In those days, it dramatically increased productivity, and Microsoft's product was ahead of the competition by a head.
The first computers could not read as fast as modern machines. Changing the value in one cell could “hang” the computer because of the need to conduct a bunch of calculations related to this. - Doug Clander
Excel 1.0 was released on September 30, 1985 and from the first day became the market leader. In the following years, Excel introduced many more breakthrough innovations into the world of spreadsheets: the ability to customize the appearance of the spreadsheet, auto-replace, and smart copying of cells.

Despite the fact that the name Excel now seems to us ideal, there were other options: for example, Master Plan and Mr. Spreadsheet. Can you imagine an ode to Mr. Tablichkin?

Do not forget: these were the times when Microsoft had not yet reached the IPO, and Bill Gates personally had a hand in many products. I think Excel has become a leader in many respects thanks to the team spirit and ideals that Bill and the Excel developers adhered to. For example, Clander says that the idea of ​​“smart recounting” was submitted to him by Bill himself. Gates disagrees and argues that Clander didn’t do what he meant.
Bill Gates was a great techie.He understood Variants and COM objects, and IDispatch, and how Automation differs from vtables, and why this could lead to a dual interface. He was worried about date functions. He did not intervene in the development if he trusted those who wrote the program. But there was no way to conduct it: he was a programmer. Real, real programmer. - My First BillG Review
The story is about a team that made a long-term bet and developed a whole system that has been and will be the market leader for many decades to come.

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Microsoft Excel 1.5 for Mac (1985)

When you think about Excel longevity, it’s breathtaking. We had the feeling that we were doing something very necessary and useful. This is probably why Excel is still living and developing. - John DeVaan, [ex] Sr. VP Windows Development
Of course, many features have since been added. But the foundation, the very principle of the spreadsheet, has remained unchanged. And I still use the tables that I made 25-30 years ago. - Doug Clander

Who's new?


In an era when “software devours the world”, we must ask ourselves: what can the history of Excel teach us? I cannot express this article either the power of my love for Excel, or how much money Microsoft makes from it. But I was able to show how much spreadsheets affect access to information.
At that time it really was very important: to make programs that are understandable to ordinary users, and not “doctoral dissertations with a user interface”. - John DeVaan, [ex] Sr. VP Windows Development
The concept of easy access [to anything, including information] is often perceived by users as something ordinary. In fact, scientists and programmers have nurtured it for decades. Yes, Excel was not a pioneer in spreadsheets. But you don’t need to be a pioneer in order to build for everyone an “accessibility bridge” that will remove user restrictions. Ideally, in a technical way, like Klander, who “taught” even low-power computers to perform complex calculations.

To better understand me, I will give you a few modern examples.

  • Companies like Webflow WordPress or Squarespace make website development a lot easier.
  • Ghost, with which this site was created [blog of the author of the article], allows you to deploy an excellent blog in a matter of minutes.
  • Stripe gives private sellers the opportunity to work online, just like Shopify makes it easy for anyone, even aged, to start an eCommerce business.

These tools have already received their portion of fame in the modern world thanks to the new opportunities that they open up. Without them, only a handful of the elite could enter this market. Now it is available to the whole world.

At the height of the revolution, under the motto “without code,” Excel can be seen as a great example with a similar concept: to build a “bridge of accessibility” to something valuable. Questions naturally arise. And what is right now in an area accessible only to a few experts? What can benefit a wider audience? And what can be created for these people? It is our job to see something valuable, but inaccessible to most people, and to make it accessible. Live long and prosper, Excel!

Note: the original article has a comment from the reader with a slightly different point of view, and we could not ignore it.
Bill Gelen: Thank you for publishing an excellent article, but Excel didn’t “win” on September 30, 1985. It was 400 percent slower than Lotus 1-2-3, and all this resulted in a tough fight (both products had cool new “ features "), which lasted until 1995.
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