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VisiCalc: one of the first “killer applications” for microcomputers in 32 Kbytes

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Aakash Molpariya
Aakash started in Nov 2018 as a writer at Revyuh.com. Since joining, as writer, he is mainly responsible for Software, Science, programming, system administration and the Technology ecosystem, but due to his versatility he is used for everything possible. He writes about topics ranging from AI to hardware to games, stands in front of and behind the camera, creates creative product images and much more. He is a trained IT systems engineer and has studied computer science. By the way, he is enthusiastic about his own small projects in game development, hardware-handicraft, digital art, gaming and music. Email: aakash (at) revyuh (dot) com

Anyone who has to deal with numbers and calculations knows the spreadsheet in spreadsheets. Forty years ago, at the West Coast Computer Fair on May 12, 1979, a young programmer named Dan Bricklin showed what to do with the calculating rows and columns on a small machine like the Apple II.

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The electronic account sheets, for which he demonstrated various scenarios, were extremely well received by the visitors. When in October 1979 the new software under the name VisiCalc (for Visible Calculator) came on the market, many bought only because of that an Apple computer, in order to be able to work with VisiCalc. So the myth of the killer application was born.

Originally, Dan Bricklin and his partner Bob Frankston wanted to develop their spreadsheets for DEC’s PDP calculator, but Dan Fylstra persuaded him to take the Apple II. He gave both of them his own Apple Calculator, which he had bought directly from Steve Jobs.

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Bricklin first drew an overview diagram and then wrote a Basic program as a demonstrator. Later, VisiCalc was developed in assembler for the 6502 microprocessor, which was in the Apple II. Originally VisiCalc should fit in 16K to run on cheap computers, but the 10,000 program lines of VisiCalc even almost broke the limit of the 32K that the Apple II had.

Frankston and Bricklin founded a company called “Software Arts” for development, while Fylstra’s “Personal Software” company was to be the publisher of sales. This then common sales model took into account the fact that the first microcomputers were very in need of explanation and computer dealers something like the First Level Support mitterferten.

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Fylstra sold VisiCalc for $ 120 to the dealers, who in turn could charge a $ 200 store price. 37.5 percent of the retailer sales price went to Software Arts developers. From the start in October, Personal Software was able to sell around 500 copies per month and increased its output to 12,000 copies a month by the end of 1980. By the end of 1983, you could sell 700,000 copies, not just for Apple, for the IBM PC. Software Arts had 130 employees and sales of $ 12 million, Personal Software 235 employees and sales of $ 60 million.

But soon began the descent: Personal Software was renamed VisiCorp and it was planned, under the Visi trademark a whole range of programs to market, something VisiPlan and VisiWriter. That’s not what Software Arts wanted to do. Adding to that, one got bogged down: Software Arts developed the next version of Visicalc for the floppy computer Apple Lisa and ignored the market for the CP / M computers from Intel, which was conquered by the company Sorcim with Supercalc.

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The departure of Mitch Kapor from Personal Software / VisiCorp is also significant. Kapor, with the backing of venture capitalists and Bricklin and Frankston’s technical improvement tips, founded Lotus, which soon dominated the PC market with 1-2-3. Kapor got 4 million dollars from his financiers,

VisiCalc turned the microcomputer into a work tool. But at that time many programs did that today can be admired in museums, The question remains about the killer application. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, VisiCalc was awarded this honorary title in 1987 by the magazine PC-Week.

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However, technology historian Martin Campbell-Kelly sees it differently in his history of the software industry: “Although VisiCalc undoubtedly had one of the advantages that personal computers offered, it was not a crucial program Word processing and personal databases), combined with falling hardware prices brought the personal computer together with the business user, but it is possible that VisiCalc has accelerated this process by several months.”

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Mention should be a knighthood of a different kind. As in the course of the “Reaganomics” with the Tax Reform Act of 1986 comprehensive tax cuts by US President Ronald Reagan should be enforced, commented the Wall Street Journal in late 1985: “We believe that now everywhere people are filling VisiCalc spreadsheets with numbers to see what awaits them with the President’s proposals. ” The lack of explanation makes it clear that VisiCalc had apparently become a commonplace – at least for readers of the Wall Street Journal .

In 2017, Dan Bricklin was to speak about VisiCalc as part of a TEDx talk. There Bricklin was forced to tell his story in – for him unusually short – 12 minutes. After some difficulties that Bricklin reports here, the short version he found is the best way to get to know the idea behind VisiCalc.

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