Saturday, July 20, 2013

The History of Excel

+Bill Jelen just highlighted this video of the history of Excel on Google+


It brings back memories of the names we have heard about. The famous Charles Simonyi (who also gave us the Hungarian Notation), names like Jeff Raikes, Jon Devaan.

Multiplan  wasn't just "a" spreadsheet. It was "the" spreadsheet for Microsoft. I experienced it on CP/M and MS-DOS. I didn't like it because I have this dyslexic type issue with Row 1 Column 1 - I keep getting my rows and columns mixed up and I guess most of the world too. So the Visicalc / Supercalc / Lotus 1-2-3 / Symphony family became much more popular because that family uses the A1 notation - the same notation that maps often use (like Melbourne's Melways).

But I had a healthy respect for it. On 64k RAM machines, it pioneered the idea of multiple file Consolidation - a feature that Excel carries to this day. And that R1C1 notation is a strong part of the Excel Object programming model. You can refer to a cell as Range("A1") or you can refer to a cell as Cells(1,1). In programming rather than hands on use, the ability to interpose Cells(x,y) where x and y are index variables that can be iterated in an array, is so much more preferable than thinking  FOR X=1 TO what number is AZ ?

For those who never experienced the Lotus 1-2-3 Macro language, it was at first, more approachable because it copied keystrokes exactly and directly - there was no mouse then, no other program running side by side to distract the program. We used to dream in /RE~

But VBA + Excel Object Model + DAO (Data Access Objects) are so much more powerful, detailed and clearer to understand and write once you get it

The Office Suite

Jeff Raikes says that proposing that Microsoft sell Word + Excel + Powerpoint + Access as a suite of programs was real brave. To me in those days, it was a no-brainer. Because the genre of an integrated single program with multiple facets had run its course. Remember Lotus Symphony (which was a spreadsheet that tried to be a single table database, wordprocessor, chartist, console window, presenter), Context MBA (which seemed to only live on HP computers), Ashton Tate Framework (I actually produced a dot matrix Company report) ? Or Microsoft Works? Nah, the better way was to just package separate specialised programs in a sales package rather than a technology solution.

Run Everywhere

Charles Simonyi said that Multiplan was the most portable program they had. It ran everywhere. So Microsoft used their end user product to encourage their compiler product teams to produce executable binaries on many platforms.  Come back to the present. Office desktop runs on Windows 8 Intel. Office RT is not the full suite of products and runs on ARM processors on Windows 8 RT. Office Web Apps run on Skydrive in the cloud. But none of the single products like Excel, actually have all the features that Office desktop has. Maybe that's what's wrong with Microsoft today - they don't have the magic to make things work.

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