The Killer App
The History of VisiCalc
Daniel Singer Bricklin was born on the 16th of July in 1951 to a Jewish family living in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. He started programming while still in grade school at Akiba Hebrew Academy. To get a sense of who he was as a child, he wrote some extensions of FORTRAN for a science fair project. After high school, Bricklin attended MIT for mathematics, but quickly changed his major to computer science. He earned his degree in 1973. He then chose to attend Harvard Business School in pursuit of his MBA. He had seen something akin to the Mother of all Demos by Doug Engelbart, and then sitting in room 108 of Aldrich Hall, he daydreamed:
Imagine if my calculator had a ball in its back, like a mouse... imagine if I had a heads-up display, like in a fighter plane, where I could see the virtual image hanging in the air in front of me. I could just move my mouse/keyboard calculator around on the table, punch in a few numbers, circle them to get a sum, do some calculations, and answer '10% will be fine!'
As he thought about the product more and more, the heads-up display was replaced by a normal screen. The first prototype was in BASIC on Harvard Business School’s timesharing system in Spring of 1978. This prototype is where he figured out the rows, the columns, human-friendly naming for columns, and the status line. Riding his bike around Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1978, he decided he would build the product. The first home micro prototype did away with the thought of a mouse. He was working with an Apple ][ borrowed from Dan Fylstra of Personal Software, and he chose to use the arrow keys. Switching between horizontal and vertical movement was done with the space bar. This prototype was written in a weekend using Apple’s BASIC. It was rough, but it did have the columns, the rows, and the arithmetic. At this point, Bricklin’s friend, Bob Frankston, joined him in this endeavor and they took the program from prototype to polished product in two months over the winter of 1978/79. This final product was written in 6502 assembly for the Apple ][. Interestingly, for this step, the programming was done using a macro assembler for the 6502 that ran on MULTICS at MIT, which was accessed via a modem and a DEC Writer III LA-120. Due to the cost of time on the computer at MIT, development was done at night. Eventually, Bricklin and Frankston would have more hardware to write and test, and this development setup would no longer be needed.
Frankston and Bricklin incorporated Software Arts Inc on the 2nd of January in 1979. The name was chosen by Frankston while they were eating some fast food fish at a building that used to be a KFC. They’re first location was an apartment rented in Arlington Massachusetts, which was a finished attic in a house. At some point that winter, the pair met with Fysltra to strike a publishing agreement over dinner in Cambridge. Finding the name of the product was tough. Several names were floated, but Fylstra was in charge of marketing and he ultimately chose the name VisiCalc.
Fylstra was a founding associate editor of Byte magazine in 1975, and he took the liberty to put teaser ads in the May 1979 issue of the magazine. The actual product unveiling, however, occurred at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco in May of 1979. Folks from microcomputer press were invited to see it as well as other software being sold by Personal Software.
The first release of VisiCalc occurred in the summer of 1979 (version 1.35). This first version required an Apple ][ with at least 32k RAM. With some of the early payments from Personal Software as a result of these first sales, Software Arts got a new space. Specifically, they rented the basement of Renaissance Computing in Central Square of Cambridge Massachusetts down the road from MIT. They also got a loan to buy a Prime minicomputer. They used PL/I on the minicomputer to write their software tools. Frankston built a macro assembler and a linker for the 6502, and Bricklin wrote a visual editor. These new tools allowed them to finish version 1.37 and ship it in October of 1979. VisiCalc sold for $100 at the time (around $450 in 2023). This was again for the Apple ][ and this version, with more features, required 48k RAM. These first versions supported cassette storage, but these were the only releases to support cassette. By the end of the year, Software Arts moved into a proper office building where they’d eventually have an entire floor to themselves.
It’s important to know that at this time the microcomputer market was largely made of hobbyists and tinkerers. All of this started to change with the release of VisiCalc and the Apple ][. According to Woz, small businesses made up more than 90% of the Apple ][ buyers out there. This was not what he and Jobs had intended. For the first year of release, VisiCalc being available only for the Apple ][ had a massive impact on Apple’s sales. According to the August 2, 1999 issue of Computerworld, 25% of those Apple ][ owners polled said they’d bought the Apple ][ specifically to run VisiCalc. In the November 1980 issue of Byte, Robert E. Ramsdell wrote:
VisiCalc is an extremely well-designed software package that can be used by anyone with or without a programming background. There is no programming language involved in the use of VisiCalc. The instant interaction between the user and the screen facilitates the understanding of the manipulation of the variables in the matrix. The ability to interchange data with other programs helps make VisiCalc an integral part of any business systems package. VisiCalc is the first program available on a microcomputer that has been responsible for sales of entire systems.
Joseph H. Budge wrote in the August 1980 issue of Compute:
There are very few single programs good enough to sell computers, VisiCalc is one such program. Every VisiCalc user knows of someone who purchased an Apple just to be able to use VisiCalc.
Rather importantly at the time, the Data Interchange Format (DIF) used by VisiCalc was supported by Microsoft BASIC which was ubiquitous on home micros of the time. This meant that applications could be written to manipulate the spreadsheets written in VisiCalc. This effectively expanded the uses of VisiCalc, and allowed people to build workflows that enabled the elimination of hours upon hours of tedium.
VisiCalc was rapidly ported to both newer and older computers. Throughout 1980, VisiCalc was released for the the TRS-80 Model III, the Apple III, the IBM PC, the TRS-80 Model 2, the Commodore PET, the HP 125, and the Atari 800. 1981 saw a port to the Sony SMC-70.
In 1982, the amazing success of VisiCalc spurred Personal Software to change their name to VisiCorp Personal Software.
Thing is, when a company has runaway success with a product it’s a signal to others that there’s profit to be made competing. Quickly after VisiCalc’s release, products such as SuperCalc for CP/M 80 (1980), MemoCalc and VuCalc for the ZX-81 (1982), and MultiPlan for CP/M (1982) were released.
Unfortunately, when VisiCalc was released for the IBM PC, it was not reworked to take advantage of the PC’s hardware. It was a straight port. To address this, VisiCalc Advanced was being developed for the IBM PC, and it was being written in a higher-level language to ease porting. The PC release of VisiCalc Advanced was late… very late. Despite this, $43 million ($130 million in 2023) in sales in 1983 placed VisiCorp as the 5th largest microcomputer-software vendor on Earth at the time. VisiCalc Advanced for the PC didn’t make it to market until 1984.
The former head of software development at VisiCorp (where he developed VisiTrend and VisiPlot), Mitchell David Kapor, left to start Lotus Development Corporation in 1982. In 1983, Lotus released 1-2-3. Lotus 1-2-3 took advantage of all of the PC’s hardware advancements, and it sold extremely well. As the PC gained market dominance, VisiCalc’s sales began to rapidly decline. As a result, VisiCorp went from 5th in the world in ‘83 to bankrupt in ‘85. Lotus acquired Software Arts and ceased development of VisiCalc.
VisiCalc changed the world. VisiCalc was the first software product to disintermediate computing power, and it thereby provided non-enthusiasts a reason to purchase a microcomputer. This was a big moment for computing history that many tend to overlook. Spreadsheets are not sexy. Today, spreadsheets are an oft maligned software product, and people love to hate them. This dismissal is only possible because of how common spreadsheet software has become. Prior to VisiCalc, spreadsheets were written on paper, by hand, and all of the calculations within them had to be done with a calculator. With the creation of the electronic spreadsheet, this tedium was swept away. Thank you for daydreaming Mr. Bricklin!