While today we mostly think of Apple in terms of the iPhone, iPod, or Macintosh, Apple can also lay claim to giving birth to the personal computer industry with the Apple II. What might be overlooked is that it took the work of a couple of students at the Harvard Business School to help turn the computer from a hobbyist’s device to a coveted business tool. In 1978 Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston wrote a program that became known as VisiCalc, which was the first spreadsheet, and it ran only on the Apple II.
Once accountants and business analysts discovered how quickly VisiCalc could perform tedious calculations, they had to have the “VisiCalc machine.” Enough people bought Apple IIs for the sole purpose of running VisiCalc that it caught the attention of IBM and spurred them on to developing their own personal computer. VisiCalc is considered to be the first of what are called “killer apps“, applications with functionality that compel people to buy hardware just to run the application.
I recalled this bit of history as I read James Kendrick’s blog post on spreadsheet data entry on tablet computers. James’ point is that Apple has done a better job of developing a spreadsheet for tablet computers than Microsoft. When you watch the Numbers section of Apple’s iPad Guided Tour videos, you will see how easy it is to use the on-screen keyboard to enter data into a spreadsheet. The keyboard is smart enough to change into different forms depending on the type of data being entered. For example, you see large buttons in the standard numeric keyboard layout for entering numeric data into a cell.
Spreadsheets are still pervasive in business, though the complexity of desktop computers can sometimes relegate the manipulation of spreadsheets to specialists who know how to productively use the software. I wonder how many senior managers will see how easy it could be for them to work with spreadsheets on an iPad and decide they just have got to have one? In the words of Yogi Berra, “this is like deja vu all over again.”