This was a question on Quora today.

I answered it thus.


Of course, Excel was not around then. But there’s a reason 1983 is the correct answer for me. I was Chief Accountant and head wizz-kid of a media group at the time. My spreadsheet was Microsoft Multiplan, the fore-runner of Excel (which arrived in Windows only in 1989).

Any PC power-user of that era will remember, to automate our work in accounting in industry we needed both the spreadsheet and some sort of database (and perhaps also a graphics package – such as Harvard Graphics). The high-end desktop database was dBase II from Ashton-Tate.

But the PC could only run one application at a time. So you had to close your database and open your spreadsheet. Data was transfers by text files via 5.25 inch floppy disk. And it was fiddly. But, all those who had computers at work in the 1980s were power-users. (These were pioneering days; we generally had a home computer, a BBC or a Spectrum; we messed about with little programs we wrote that did some little game or puzzle. The PC clones did well because we took a copy of the software we had in the office to install on the home Amstrad 512k in the late 80s. Now we had 3.5 floppies that were in hard cases)

So, even before Excel we knew we needed more than a spreadsheet to do serious office work.

The industry responded by creating ‘Integrated Software’ – meaning the spreadsheet and the database and the graphics were in the same application. With Lotus Symphony, and Ashton-Tate Frameworks, and others you didn’t have to close the application to switch between the environments. Sinclair QL also had a suite of integrated business applications, another enthusiasts’ piece of kit with a business slant. Anyway, now we no longer needed to transfer data between applications via a floppy disk.

Then came Windows, and of course the operating system was designed to run multiple applications. It was no longer necessary to integrate spreadsheets and databases and graphics (charting) into one software application; which, if you think about it, needed some compromise. Now the applications can specialise. Thus emerged the suite of Office products. Office Pro 4.2 was the bee’s knees in 1994. It had Excel 5 (now programmable with VBA), and Access 2. AND (this is the important bit!) they were integratable. That is, the plumbing to integrate the spreadsheet and database was already provided by Microsoft.

For example, with Excel we could reach into a table or view (called Queries in Access) in Access and programatically fill a Pivot Table. Excel and Access could work as one. Just like the integrated software applications at the tail-end of the DOS era.

So, yes. In my consulting career from the 1990s I have mainly worked with improving accounting workflow with Excel and Access or SQL Server – but the use of the methodology, in my career, starting long before Excel came along.

Present Day

Today, Excel is regarded as a stand alone tool. It is not!

Spreadsheets are created as if Excel is stand alone. We send spreadsheets to each other. It has never been necessary to do that – if Excel and Access/SQL Server are used together, over the corporate network – or now on the Cloud. This is obvious if you lived through the evolution I outlined above. If not, you may need to stop and think a bit.

The video on this site are to help see that connection.

Hiran de Silva

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