Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Apple’s GUI and the Creation of the Microsoft’s Excel Spreadsheet Application

Posted on | October 19, 2018 | No Comments

Microsoft’s famous spreadsheet application, Excel, was originally designed for Apple’s Macintosh personal computer. This post explores the beginning years of the personal computer and its transition to its more modern interface pioneered by Apple and its Macintosh computer. This transition opened the way for new software innovations, particularly the development of the Excel spreadsheet application by Microsoft. Excel has since become the mainstay spreadsheet application in organizations around the world.

The Apple Macintosh or “Mac” was based on the Graphical User Interface (GUI, pronounced “gooey”), that was primarily developed at Xerox Parc in Palo Alto, CA. It was sometimes called WIMP for its Windows, Icons, Mouse, and Pull-down menus technology. The Apple II and IBM PC were still based on something called a command line interface, a “black hole” next to a > prompt that required code to entered and executed on. For example, to find a word or other string of characters, you would type find /V “any string” FileName at the prompt C:\>

This command line system required extensive prior knowledge and/or access to readily available technical documentation. The user needed to know the codes or copy them from a manual. The GUI on the other hand, allowed you to point to information already on the screen or categories that contained subsets of commands. Eventually, menu categories such as File, Edit, View, Tools, Help were standardized on the top of GUI screens.

A crucial issue for the Mac was good third-party software that could work in its GUI environment, especially a spreadsheet. Representatives from Jobs’ Macintosh team visited the fledgling companies that had previously supplied microcomputer software. Good software came from companies like Telos Software that produced the picture-oriented FileVision database and Living Videotext’s ThinkTank used “dynamic outlines” to capture levels of thought and promote creative thinking. By April 1985, they had sold 30,000 copies, or to about 10% of all Mac owners. However, that number was still small compared to the potential of the business world.

For the Mac to be useful for a business, Apple needed a new VisiCalc. Jobs’ longstanding relationship with VisiCorp was strained because the VisiCalc distributor was trying to develop its own “PARC-like system” for IBM PCs called Visi-On.[1] Lotus was the up-and-coming software producer and signed on with Apple to produce an ambitious spreadsheet application called “Jazz,” but the software soon ran into trouble. Steven Levy wrote:

    Apple was desperate for the Macintosh equivalent to VisiCalc, something so valuable that people would buy the computer solely to run it. It had high expectations for Lotus’s product—after all, Lotus 1-2-3 had been the IBM PC’s VisiCalc—but Lotus’s Jazz turned out to be a dud. Mitch Kapor’s charges had clumsily missed the point of Macintosh. In the Lotus view, Mac was a computer for beginners, for electronic dilettantes who still clung to a terror of technology. Jazz was the equivalent of a grade school primer, an ensemble of crippled little applications that worked well together but were minimally useful. No one bought it.[2]

Other companies had partial success in creating a spreadsheet for the Mac, but part of the problem of getting a good spreadsheet for the Mac was that its screen was small and not conducive to spreadsheet work. Microsoft’s Multiplan for the Mac was an early offering. Ashton Tate produced a spreadsheet for the Mac called Full Impact that contained much of the software used in an Apple in-house spreadsheet called Mystery House. Unlike its Apple II predecessor, the Macintosh was failing to make significant inroads into a business world that was enamored with the PC and Lotus 1-2-3.

Apple’s innovative Macintosh technology did not go unnoticed by Microsoft. Microsoft was shown the embryonic Mac near the end of 1981. Apple authorized Microsoft to develop software languages and apps for the Mac GUI-based system. Gates and company had gone public in March of 1985 netting the co-founder’s 45 percent share in the company some $311 million in net worth. The young company was working secretly on their own GUI interface while continuing to develop software for the Mac. Meanwhile, Microsoft pressured Apple to give them a license for the GUI interface and threatened to stop work on the software they were producing for Apple.[3] In October 1985, Apple CEO John Scully gave in and offered them a license for the Mac GUI. But much to the ire of Apple, Gates’ company had developed their own GUI that it layered on top of its DOS operating system. In November 1985, Microsoft began to ship Windows 1.0, a DOS operating system with an awkward but much friendlier face.

The Macintosh’s initial “killer app” turned out desktop publishing that helped them develop their WYSYWIG (what you see is what you get) technology. In mid-July 1985, a company called Aldus released a final version of PageMaker. For the producers of corporate newsletters and other small publishers, the Macintosh began to show great promise. For the first time, documents could be manipulated and shown on the screen exactly as it would be published. But the WYSYWIG appearance on the screen was only minimally effective without the capacity to print what was shown. The printing solution came from another computer scientist from Xerox PARC. John Warnock had created technology called Postscript that allowed a laser printer to print exactly what was on the screen. In 1982 he created a company called Adobe that caught the attention of Apple. Jobs canceled work on other projects and bought nearly 20% of Adobe while carefully integrating their technology into the design of a new Laser printer.

Combined with applications like Pagemaker and Macpaint, the new software-print combination inspired thousands of graphic artists and painters to try the Macintosh. While Apple lost market share in the financial sphere, it became the darling of graphic designers and publishers. One casualty, however, was Steve Jobs who was ousted by CEO John Scully and the Apple board in May 1985 after Apple recorded its first-ever quarterly loss. In September, Jobs sold his shares of Apple.

The new GUI-enhanced machines presented a major challenge for the software industry. The original company that created the famous VisiCalc spreadsheet was sued by its distributor VisiCorp, formerly Personal Software, in September 1983 for failing to keep the software current. A counter-suit was filed and the legal hassles distracted software development. Consequently, the spreadsheet application never made an adequate jump to a GUI environment. Lotus Development bought out Software Arts after a chance meeting between Bricklin and Kapor on an airline flight. Soon after, Lotus discontinued VisiCalc. But Lotus also took a nosedive as its failure with Jazz was a fateful mistake, providing a crucial opening for Microsoft. Gates and company released Excel 2 for the “fat Mac” in 1985. Although it was the first version, it was numbered to correspond with the new Mac. Soon Excel became a popular spreadsheet for the Macintosh, especially after the release of Excel 2.2 for the Macintosh in 1989 that was nearly twice as fast as the original.

Microsoft went on to develop several versions of Windows, its new GUI operating system and as they got better, the Excel spreadsheet became more popular. Windows 2.0 was released in 1987 and Microsoft offered versions of Excel for Windows and for DOS that year. But both applications were awkward and did not become very popular. Apple sued Microsoft in 1988 after the release of Windows 2.01, claiming its interface design had been copied, but to no avail.

Lotus 1-2-3 had been the top-selling software product of 1989 but that was also the year the GUI gained popular acceptance within the DOS world with the introduction of Windows 3.0. The DOS-based Quattro Pro by Borland had been on the rise against the dominance of Lotus 1-2-3, but neither could resist the power of the user-friendly Excel 3.0 and the even better Excel 4.0 released in 1992. Meanwhile, Excel remained the only spreadsheet available for Windows until 1992 when Lotus countered with its Lotus 1-2-3 4.0 for Windows. But Excel 5.0 signaled Microsoft’s rise to dominance, partially because of the inclusion of the Visual Basic Programming System. Windows soon monopolized the PC desktop and Excel became its flagship business tool.[5]


[1] Visi-On information from Steven Levy’s Insanely Great. The Life and Times of Macintosh, The Computer that Changed Everything. NY: Penguin Books. p. 160.
[2] Quote on the Jazz failure from Steven Levy’s (1995) Insanely Great. The Life and Times of Macintosh, The Computer that Changed Everything. NY: Penguin Books. p. 219-20.
[3] Information on John Warnock and Postscript from (2002) Computing Encyclopedia. Volume 5: People. Smart Computing Reference Series. p. 38. Also see Levy (1995) p. 212-213.
[4] Apple vs Microsoft in Freiberger, P. and Swaine, M. (2000) Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer. Second Edition. NY: McGraw-Hill. p. 361.
[5] Information on spreadsheet competition from Rob Clarke’s “A Formula for Success,” PC WORLD, August 1993, pp. 15-16.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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