Lessons Learned 40 Years After VisiCalc

The spreadsheet program taught the tech industry many lessons, including the power of disruption.

The Wall Street Journal reflects on the lessons learned from the world’s first ‘killer app,’ VisiCalc. VisiCalc, a mere spreadsheet program, set fire to the tech world. 40 years later, tech titans still remember the lessons from the app, including the threat of disruption.

VisiCalc became Dan Bricklin’s brain child during his time at Harvard Business School. He teamed up with Bob Frankston to code his idea, and by June 4, 1979, the program was unveiled.

VisiCalc was, to put it simply, a spreadsheet. It could be used for budgets, finances, and making other types of lists. Now, everyone knows what a spreadsheet is. Then, it was a new and exciting experience.

“It was a cute little program but who was going to expect anything big out of it?” said Mr. Frankston.

At the time, VisiCalc could only be used on the Apple II computer, the first major consumer product from the company. Steve Jobs said that VisiCalc “propelled the Apple II to the success it achieved more than any other single event.”

An article published for PC Magazine in 1984 observed, “People entered computer stores to purchase VisiCalc and something to run it on.

The transition from paper ledgers to electronic spreadsheets cleared the way for an entirely new platform: the PC.

Another lesson learned from the tale of VisiCalc is a more unfortunate one. Bricklin and Frankston fell victim to “disruptive innovation” which is when a smaller company outflanks the bigger company by focusing on an overlooked market, according to academic Clayton Christensen.

The product manager of VisiCalc’s publisher, Mitch Kapor, began to construct his own spreadsheet program. Kapoor used the new IBM PC as his platform to run his program, Lotus 1-2-3. The success Kapor experienced was unbelievable, and went far beyond VisiCalc’s success.

“It honestly seemed to most people like a very risky thing to do, because in the market at the time, Apple II was the dominant machine,” says Mr. Kapor.

Lotus utilized the important part of VisiCalc, but incorporated new features that he knew the market wanted. To his program he added variable column widths, the ability to create charts, and a macro language for simple programming. It was also much faster than its competitor.

Lotus launched the success of IBM PCs. The first year after the PC came out, less than 100,000 units were ordered. By the second year, after the rise of Lotus, 280,000 units shipped.

Now that current tech companies understand the power of disruption, they invest heavily in any potential new platform rather than be dethroned.

Read the full story here.