It’s been fashionable for the last 10 years to write endlessly about the wonders that computers and the internet have brought to our lives. The Federal Reserve has even taken to fudging productivity numbers based on what they call the “hedonic adjustment” – the supposed increases in productivity that this very special piece of equipment brings to our lives. But for all the great things that email, then web browsers, then any number of web based interfaces are supposed to have brought to our lives, nothing exceeds like good old Excel.
It’s not as if Excel was invented by Microsoft, or that it was even the first program that originated as someone else’s idea, but it’s by far my pick as the best. The first spreadsheet was VisiCalc, the visible calculator that I first ran into in 1983. Back then, complex calculations were something a young engineering student could do if he or she could do some simple programming, probably in BASIC. Being able to lay everything out where the inevitable mistakes were visible made life a lot easier. But that was only the beginning. Louts 1-2-3 made impressive graphs and charts easy, and the statistical functions gave everyone the tools necessary to pass basic stats without a sweat.
It was a game Microsoft had to get into, and by 1988 they were starting to take market share from Lotus. The reason wasn’t the bundling with the already-difficult Word or other programs, it was because Excel is the one program that had features and shortcuts by the barrelful that were actually useful. What made them useful was “orthogonality”, or the fact that all of them were laid out in basically the same way. No matter how complex things got, the help functions spelled it out in the same way. You just had to get used to it.
It wasn’t quite minimalism, but it had the ethic at its core. It was close enough.
Today, people who aren’t quite sure about computers in general often know just enough Excel to make use of it. It’s the crescent wrench of our time, the program that just about anyone can make use of even if they can’t make it do everything it can. I’ve seen it used to organize finances, inventory, long-range planning, and project management.
What really is it about Excel that makes it so useful? It allows us to lay things out in a way that makes us personally more organized and productive. Before computers connected us to other people and ideas, Excel and its predecessors were there to connect us to our own world in a way that allowed us to get control over it. It did what we needed computers to do, which was make sense of a complex situation in a way we could understand intuitively.
It’s not as though Microsoft invented the idea, or that they really did all that much to perfect it on their own. What they did was standardize it and make it just enough more useful that it could do nearly anything. That, combined with their impressive marketing, made the program that we know today.
Excel is a great program, and one that I have come to rely on. The work of the OpenOffice folks to create a truly public version, Calc, is wonderful but it’s really just a ratification of the fact that Excel is so useful that it has to been heavily pirated. It’s best to do this legally, of course, and Excel is so much a part of people’s lives it would be best to have the public domain version take over. No matter what, Excel is what made computers useful to people long before we knew how to connect everything together into one big ‘net. It’s worth celebrating as a tool we depend on that has indeed changed our lives.