When starting my research into Microsoft Excel’s history I was motivated to see where the technology all began, failing to recognize the origins of the spreadsheet were long before computers. Spreadsheets began in the Accounting field with simple pen and paper to organize transaction data into columns and rows. This process of writing out and manually adding numbers took a large amount of time and therefore led to the innovation of electronic spreadsheets.
Although Excel still is primarily used in the Business world, its functionality has gone far beyond Accounting, which sparked my interest in how it arrived at such a developed state. Through this timeline, one can explore moments in Excel’s version history that go beyond calculations and produce visualizations of the data their spreadsheets hold.
Understanding Excel’s Origins
In order to see where it all began I searched the internet for videos, descriptions, and reviews to get an overall feel for what the first users of Excel’s predecessor, Multiplan, experienced when using the program. I luckily came across the Multiplan Archive, which allowed me to fully immerse myself at the beginning of electronic spreadsheets.
Learning About Version History
From here on I relied heavily on PDF user guides to Excel to see new program implementations along the way as well as news articles, blogs with tips/tricks on how to use the programs, YouTube video tutorials from specific versions, and screenshot images. I researched each primary upgrade and selected 8 of the versions to focus my timeline.
Selecting Versions to Focus On
These 8 versions represent the primary times in Excel’s history in which new visualization features were implemented. Below is a brief recollection of the main visualization advancements in each release.
- Multiplan: In cell Bar Graphs
- Excel 1: Ability to Create and Format Graphs within a Spreadsheet
- Excel 2.0: Customize font, color and format in graphs and in data
- Excel 3.0: 3D Graphs and Charts
- Excel 2000: Autoformat for PivotTable Reports and introduction of PivotCharts
- Excel 2010: Sparklines within the cell
- Excel 2016: 6 new chart types and 3D Powermapping included within the program
- Office 365 Excel: Artificial Intelligence functions to provide graphical display suggestions
In order to create this timeline, I utilized TimelineJS, which was created by Knight Lab as an open-source tool. In order to build the contents of the timeline TimelineJS provides a template to use in Google Sheets as well as several instructions on how to go about publishing and formating your timeline.
Information & Media for the Timeline
In order to gain insight and information on the specific version histories of Excel I referenced Youtube videos of others using the program to create visuals. I also skimmed Excel Manuals of versions to discover what features were specifically new to that version.
Links to YouTube Videos:
- An Overall History of Excel
- Excel 1 & Excel 2000
- Excel 2.0
- Excel 2010
- Excel 2016
- Office 365 Excel
To find the majority of the media in the timeline I googled screenshots from specific versions, looked through tutorial blogs for screenshots, searched program archives, and reference Microsoft’s advertisements published to showcase new features.
The resulting timeline showcases how Excel developed a program that outperformed its competitors by staying involved in knowing what was developing. Microsoft took note of the success VisiCalc was having, saw its potential, and created something that had clear formatting and was more user-friendly to the masses.
The main takeaway from the timeline is how although Excel was able to create a program that originally outperformed Visicalc and Lotus 1-2-3, there will always be something new. An interesting feature that was highlighted in the current version, Office 365 Excel, is the ability to communicate with colleagues through comments on the spreadsheet in real-time (rather than comments emailed within the document). The collaborative software spreadsheet, Google Sheets (launched in 2006), has been implementing this for far longer. Although the data visualizations are not yet on par with Excel’s, the browser accessibility and user-friendliness of Google Sheets has launched them to the #2 spot in the electronic spreadsheet world. Not to mention Google Sheets is a free program for those with a Google account.
Moving forward it will be interesting to see if Excel will remain at the top, or if Google Sheets will evolve to provide enough to the users to remove Excel from the top spot that it’s held for two decades.
Using TimelineJS was a great experience. I appreciated that the formatting of the text was customizable through the Google Sheet template. For example, utilizing HTML I was able to incorporate a button for viewers of the timeline to also be able to access the Microsoft Multiplan archive and test it out for themselves. For simple additions like this, the spreadsheet was a great option but would love to see a version of TimelineJS in the future where edits could be made directly while viewing the timeline. I think that the slide show set up in landscape is a great start, but additional formating options could improve upon the user’s experience.
If I were to add features to TimelineJS I would include a ‘return to the title page‘ at the bottom of the timeline as well as a print to PDF option for the viewer. This way the timeline created could be easily incorporated into a report or article.
I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more about Excel’s background and I am inspired to explore more of the previous versions because although the current version can do incredible things, it has lost a lot of the simplicity that the program once had. This timeline has also inspired me to talk with colleagues, friends, and family that have used or are familiar with programs such as Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and Multiplan.
The future of electronic spreadsheets looks bright and with competition between Google Sheets and Excel growing it will be interesting to see who comes out ahead.