Today in Apple history: Apple II gets its ‘killer app’

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VisiCalc, the world's first
The world's first computer spreadsheet.
Photo: VisiCalc

January 2, 1979: Entrepreneurs Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston incorporate their company Software Arts to publish a little program called VisiCalc.

The first spreadsheet for the Apple II, the $100 VisiCalc becomes personal computing’s first “killer app” and helps transform personal computers from “cool to have” toy into “must have” business accessory.

Computers in business

For computer users who grew up with PCs and Macs in the workplace, it seems unimaginable that there was ever a time when a real distinction existed between a “work” and “home” computer, aside from the software that it ran.

VisiCalc
How indeed?
Photo: VisiCalc

In fact, in the early days of personal computers, many in business viewed them as hobbyist devices that didn’t compare at all favorably to the mainframes companies routinely used. On a technical level, they didn’t.

However, astute individuals saw that the dream of having one computer to every person served a different use-case — such as cutting down on the weeks a person might be waiting for their business’ computer department to prepare a report.

VisiCalc was one of the first programs which “sold” personal computers like the Apple II as more than a nerdy toy.

In the way that we’re now accustomed to with spreadsheets, it took as its metaphor the idea of a business production planning blackboard, which could be used for totting up and calculating finances. Creating formulas meant that changing the sum in one “cell” of the spreadsheet would change the numbers in another.

No program had existed like VisiCalc before — which meant that the Apple II version wasn’t a toned-down inferior version of existing software, like the console ports of arcade games used to be.

VisiCalc for the Apple II sold a massive 700,000 copies in six years, and possibly as many as 1 million during the course of its lifespan. Despite costing only $100 (the equivalent of $350 today), many customers bought $2,000 Apple II computers just to be able to run it.

Eventually VisiCalc was ported to other computing platforms, and received rivals in the notable form of Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel. Both of these were able to improve on aspects of VisiCalc, either technically or in terms of the user interface.

However, Bricklin and Frankston’s program proved enormously significant and remains a crucial part of Apple history.

What was your personal “killer app” which made you or your family buy their first computer? Has one piece of software ever swayed you for or against a piece of hardware? Leave your comments below.

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  • I remember Visicalc very well. I paid $150.00 for it in 1980!! But it was well worth it.

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