My first spreadsheet was Visicalc running on an HP85 back (pictured) around 1980. It was a transforming experience. I was able to build mathematical policy models using the machine, which stored the data on a cassette tapedrive. Floppy disks didn't come until a year or so later, when Lotus 1-2-3 was created for the IBM PC. At the time, I remember thinking about how IBM wasnever going to make much money selling PCs. Well they have come and gone(selling off their PC business to Lenovo, and buying Lotus software), and this year the long-suffering spreadsheet is celebrating its 30thanniversary. I got a chance to talk to one of its inventors, Dan Bricklin, who is now working for Socialtext. Socialtext sells a Web service that allows you to share spreadsheets or data by just using a browser, similar to the programs that I wrote about here in an earlier blog post.
Unlike those programs, you can pour a lot of information into a single cell of the spreadsheet, and turn them into very capable mathematical models or data collections. Unlike the ones that I built 30 years ago, these can readily be shared across the Internet with your colleagues, and you can collaborate on them in real time without having to go out and buy any special software tools -- all you need is your Web browser and an Internet connection.
We have certainly come full circle since those early days. Socialtext's SocialCalc will cost you just a few dollars a month, which is alot less than what Visicalc or 1-2-3 sold for back then.