Earlier this week, we looked at the launch of the first version of Microsoft Word in 1983. We mentioned that there were a number of conflicting dates for the actual launch of the program. Thankfully, that's not the case for the release of another major Microsoft software product, Excel.
All of the online resources we have seen including Microsoft's own history page, show that the first release of Microsoft Excel happened on September 30, 1985, or 38 years ago today.
Much like the release of Word, the launch of the Excel spreadsheet program was made by Microsoft when there was a lot of competition in this specific software space. VisiCalc was the first such program, which launched in 1979. In 1983, Lotus 1–2–3 was released and quickly outsold VisiCalc.
Microsoft previously tried to enter the spreadsheet industry, even before the release of Lotus 1-2-3, with its launch of Microsoft Multiplan in 1982. The 8-bit program was released for a number of different operating systems including MS-DOS, CP/M, Xenix, and others.
It was also released for a number of different PCs like the Commodore 64, the Apple II, the RTS-80, and more. In 1984, a version of Multiplan was released for the Apple Macintosh, which used a GUI instead of a text-based interface.
However, the sales of Multiplan were not high enough to defeat the popularity of Lotus 1-2-3. Microsoft decided to create an all-new spreadsheet program. GeekWire has an interesting article at the creation of Microsoft's second, and ultimately successful, attempt at such a program, with chats from some of the people who developed it.
One of the things the article points out is that Microsoft's developers came up with some features that Lotus 1-2-3 did not have. That included what was called "intelligent recall":
Rather than recalculating all the cells when one cell was changed, it selectively recalculated cells affected by the change — making the program more efficient and improving its performance on the limited hardware of early personal computers.
When it was in development, GeekWire said that it was under the code name "Odyssey". However, some other suggested names were thrown out, like “Master Plan” and our personal favorite, “Mr. Spreadsheet".
The final Excel name came from a suggestion from an unnamed branch manager at Microsoft in 1984, according to the book "A History Of The Personal Computer" by Roy A. Allen.
The first Excel version that launched 38 years ago today was released for the popular Apple Macintosh. Oddly enough, there was never a version of Excel released that was made for MS-DOS. Microsoft decided that the graphical user interface that was made for the Mac was the best way to access the spreadsheet.
Microsoft also released the first version of Windows in 1985, a few months after the launch of Excel. Two years later, the first Windows version of Excel was launched and soon after that, sales of the program exceeded that of Lotus 1-2-3. Along with its other productivity software products like Word and PowerPoint, Microsoft managed to dominate that market and make those programs required for nearly all businesses in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
Today, while there are certainly other spreadsheet programs, in particular Google Sheets, that are available, Microsoft Excel remains the major force in that market. Microsoft continues to update the program with new features, such as the recent edition of adding support for the Python coding language. It even added an improvement for manual calculation mode just a few weeks ago that had not been appreciably changed since VisiCalc first launched in 1979. Now that's progress.