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The First Killer App

April 17

A recent Mercury News article noted the 25th anniversary of the spreadsheet. Dan Bricklin’s VisiCalc –- which many credit with the mass popularization of the PC –- debuted brilliantly, then died almost as quickly. But it left behind a lasting legacy.

We were in the Harvard Business School classroom back in 1977 where Bricklin’s private doodlings laid down the concepts that became VisiCalc, concepts that remain to this day the foundation for all spreadsheet applications. Who knew that Dan, the unassuming wild-haired student in the first row, was quietly concocting a multi-billion dollar revolution while the rest of us fiercely debated how to set up cost accounting at a plumbing company?

VisiCalc’s magic lasted only five years before yielding the stage to Lotus 1-2-3 and then Microsoft’s Excel. Nonetheless, VisiCalc introduced the concept that end-user software was very important, in fact critical to a total solutions sale. While hindsight says that VisiCalc’s inventors failed to protect their intellectual property from legal filching and to exploit the value of their franchise through aggressive marketing, these facts don’t diminish the towering achievement of the world’s first “killer app”.

Even VisiCalc’s demise held prescient lessons for all software vendors. As Mitch Kapor, Lotus founder, said recently, "Success and failure in the technology business is only loosely linked to technical and design excellence." And we would add, in the aftermath of the dotcom bust, “Success and failure in the technology business is only loosely linked to marketing and sales hype” It takes all things in proportion to make the technology business model work.

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