The benefits of VisiCalc go beyond its humble origins as calculating paper. It represents a way of using computers that allows the user to ask ‘what if’ questions that would be too tedious to carry out by hand. Not only are such questions important in planning, they can be vital to the user in learning and coming to understand his own application.
Both the words ‘serendipity’ and ‘synergy’ are appropriate for VisiCalc. As VisiCalc evolved it showed us how effective personal computers can be as streamlined interactive tools. But, VisiCalc was not simply a lucky extrapolation of the basic ideas. Both authors of VisiCalc have extensive background in using large mainframes as personal computers and in creating systems to be used by large numbers of people with little training. Word processing background was of special importance since it provided experience in designing screen-based, highly interactive interfaces. More important for VisiCalc, it made us very aware of the need for a carefully designed and tuned user interface. This interface was constantly refined during the development process.via frankston.com
I hadn’t seen this paper by Bob Frankston before – presented in 1979 it introduced the world to a new fangled idea: the Visicalc spreadsheet. Apparently there weren’t a lot of people around to hear the original presentation of this paper, but it is worth reading retrospectively. Diffusion of this innovation was slow to gather momentum, but some people could see the potential.
Why is this worth mentioning?
The personal computer it seams was a solution looking for a problem and the idea for Visicalc came from an idea for improving how individual people currently worked on tedious calculation tasks, rather then affecting the bottom line of a business. I particularly appreciate that the creators of Visicalc thought carefully about how users would interact with it and other software they already used (bearing in mind the limitations of the hardware at the time). In the end Visicalc didn’t completely kill off the idea of either prepackaged solutions for personal computers or enterprise systems, but it is hard to imagine any business today where spreadsheets aren’t still considered to be a critical tool. In many instances you could even argue that spreadsheets are more critical than any of the large, complex systems of record that many organisations invest in.
From this perspective, I can’t but help draw parallels with social software and wonder if its a good idea that all enterprise tools have to solve single quantifiable problems?
Hat tip David Weinberger.