Killer app

“Big … crowded .. and not entirely pleasant.” And a birthday. Also, 7 other things worth your time

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday to you.

Happy birthday, dear Killer App.

Happy birthday to you.

Forty-two years ago tomorrow, at the old New York City Coliseum convention center, in an atmosphere described contemporaneously as “big … crowded .. and not entirely pleasant,” the co-creators of VisiCalc—the first spreadsheet program designed for a personal computer—unveiled their creation to the world.

This was a really big moment, in retrospect.

Sure, VisiCalc is at least three or four spreadsheets du jour ago.

Sure, half of my readers will have no idea what it was.

But here’s what Michael Bragitikos of The Wall Street Journal had to say about it in December 1996, a little over equidistant ago:

For the personal computer, the first killer app was a program called VisiCalc.

It was the first electronic spreadsheet, and suddenly legions of business-school graduates, accountants, and others who pushed numbers around for a living for the first time had a reason to own a PC.

VisiCalc only worked on the Apple II at first, and Steve Jobs later credited it with being one of the key things that made that computer a success.

No VisiCalc? No Apple II, then no Macintosh, no iPhone, no MacBook Air (on which I’m writing this at the moment). No Toy Story or Pixar, for that matter.

Getting there required the work of a 1970s Harvard Business School student named Dan Bricklin, who had an epiphany in the middle of class.

One of his professors was trying to explain a financial calculation on a blackboard. Every time the professor adjusted an input to make a point—change 10% to 12%, for example—he had to manually recalculate every other equation.

It took forever. But this was just what people did at the time—and had been doing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (At least in the 1970s, they had handheld calculators.)

However, Bricklin had been a programmer before business school. And as he sat in class, “daydreaming” as he later put it, he got the idea for an electronic spreadsheet—something that seems obvious now, but which was radical for its day.

It was so radical, in fact, that Bricklin had to come up with the idea of using letters to refer to columns, and numbers to refer to rows, just to keep the calculations straight.

Even if you don’t use spreadsheets often, I’ll bet that when I show you this grid, you can pretty quickly tell me what value is in cell B3:

That was all new. Here’s what Bricklin’s reference sheet looked like, as he was trying to work through what the user experience should be:

In fact, when Bricklin had a completed product worthy of a demo, and he and his cofounder unveiled it at the National Computer Conference on June 4, 1979, they had to explain three things to a skeptical audience:

  • What exactly is a spreadsheet?

  • Why does it have to run on a personal computer?

  • For that matter: What exactly is a personal computer?

I guess we can let Jobs explain those last questions. Until VisiCalc, computers were seen as the domain of hobbyists, but with VisiCalc, there was now a business case.

And in 1979, the Apple II was the only personal computer powerful enough to handle VisiCalc. As Jobs put it:

VisiCalc. [T]hat's what really … propelled the Apple to the success it achieved more than any other single event. … The Apple II could hold up to 48 kilobytes of memory, which today doesn't seem like much, but at that time was maybe three times as much as its competitors.

And that's why VisiCalc was written for the Apple II. It was the only computer that could hold it.

Contemporary news stories talk about businesspeople going to computer stores to buy the groundbreaking $100 VisiCalc program, and then buying the Apple II at $2,500 each, almost as an afterthought.

It was a success, for a short while. More than a million copies of VisiCalc were sold between 1979 and 1983.

But then a former employee launched a spreadsheet program called Lotus 1-2-3, which ran better on IBM's new computers. Of course, eventually VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 were both ultimately overcome by Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, and many others.

Still, raise a glass to the killer app, without which it’s hard to calculate what life would be like today.

"If VisiCalc had been written for some other computer," Steve Jobs told his interviewer in 1990, "you'd be interviewing somebody else right now."

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Thanks to everyone who sat in on the interview with Turney Duff yesterday. I’ll write about it soon, and let the 10 folks who won the books know later today. I thought it was fun, and I also learned a lot about how to do these better in the future.

If you have thoughts or ideas, reply and let me know.


7 other things worth your time

  • A 3-year-old girl who is something of a piano prodigy will perform at Carnegie Hall. (Fox NYC)

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Me, messing around on my computer. A version of a small part of this newsletter previously ran on Inc.comWant to see all my mistakes? Click here

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