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


VisiCalc, the world's first
The world's first computer spreadsheet.
Photo: Steven Weyhrich/Apple2History

January 2: Today in Apple history: With VisiCalc, the Apple II gets its first killer app 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.” It helps transform personal computers from “cool to have” toys into “must have” business accessories.

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.

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 favorably to the mainframes companies routinely used. On a technical level, they didn’t.

However, astute individuals saw that the dream of one computer for every person served a different use. For instance, personal computers cut down the weeks a worker might wait as their company’s computer department prepared a report.

VisiCalc makes Apple II a serious tool

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

In the way we’re now accustomed, the innovative spreadsheet program took as its metaphor the idea of a business production planning blackboard that 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 like VisiCalc existed before. That meant 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. While the program cost $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 rivals arose like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel. Both of those programs improved on aspects of VisiCalc, either technically or in terms of the user interface.

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

What killer app ran on your first computer?

What killer app drove your (or your family’s) first computer purchase? Has one piece of software ever swayed you for or against a piece of hardware? Leave your comments below.