Today in Apple history: With VisiCalc, the Apple II gets its 'killer app'

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

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An Apple II with a copy of
An Apple II with a copy of "killer app" VisiCalc, on display at the Museum of Science in Boston.
Photo: Jean-Edouard Babin/Flickr CC

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 ultimately becomes personal computing’s first “killer app.” It helps transform personal computers from “cool to have” toys into “must have” business accessories.

The dawn of home computing

For people who grew up with PCs and Macs in the workplace, it might seem unimaginable that there was a time when a real distinction existed between “work” and “home” computers, aside from the software the machines ran.

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

Spreadsheet app VisiCalc makes Apple II a serious tool

VisiCalc, the world's first "killer app," in all its glory.
VisiCalc, the world’s first computer spreadsheet, in all its glory.
Screenshot: Steven Weyhrich/Apple2History

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 $382 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 rival spreadsheet programs like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel arose. 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.