May 23, 2017

Historical Background of Spreadsheets

Christopher Browne offers a nice history, and also some good thoughts on where spreadsheets can be improved.

It’s fascinating to find out that there were alternative systems to using capital letters for columns and numerals for rows, e.g. “A1” and “B3”. The primary alternative was used by Microsoft MultiPlan and others, with rows and columns numbered with “R” or “C” marking the distinction, e.g. “R1C1” and “R2C3”.

I largely agree with his points about offering increased aesthetic formatting capabilities into spreadsheet software, but I disagree to the extent that visual distinctions like cell shading, proper alignment of numerals, distinguishing headers, etc. add meaning and offer non-trivial improvements. My concern is that this is only the case when they are used for that purpose, and spreadsheet software does little to make this easy for users.

It’s also clear that spreadsheets are frequently used as quasi-databases, which exposes much of their fragility. I have yet to see a convincing proposal for making relational databases with all of their benefits more accessible to users in the way that spreadsheets are. How can we introduce the integrity of these types of systems in ways that help users take advantage of them, without introducing a steep learning curve?

I think of spreadsheet software as the most accessible modern programming environment. Projects like Jupyter offer a very different take on a programmable document, but I long for something that improves on the power of spreadsheet software to give people a way to interact with information and make sense of it.