Software: Putting PCs to Work

VisiCalc software

VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers, was followed by spreadsheets from Lotus, Microsoft, Borland and others. VisiCalc wasn’t patented because software patents generally were not issued until after a groundbreaking 1981 Supreme Court ruling.

Software: Putting PCs to Work

As PC users became more numerous and diverse, entrepreneurs vied to meet (and create) demand for new and varied applications.

Software companies exploded in the 1980s. So too did software piracy. Users readily copied and shared programs. The introduction of computers with dual-floppy disk drives made this process child’s play—often literally, since games were among the most frequently copied applications.

PC Software Timeline: Bill Atkinson, Andy Herzfeld: About MacPaint

Chapters: 1. About MacPaint, 2. Susan Kare, 3. Mac Paint Cut Paste Copy

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Bill Gates contacted makers of the Altair in 1975 proposing software for the BASIC programming language. The company was interested—which meant Gates and friend Paul Allen had to actually develop it. Microsoft was born.

Gates soon challenged prevailing attitudes in the computing community, arguing that copying software meant programmers earned a pittance for their efforts.

Roots of Microsoft

In 1975, two young hackers, united by a passion for computers, set out to share their obsession with the world. Bill Gates and Paul Allen reminisce about the modest beginnings and hobbyist roots of the company that grew to be global industry giant Microsoft.

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Early MicroSoft employees

These are all but two of the employees of Microsoft just before its move from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Seattle, Washington. From left to right and bottom to top: Bill Gates (co-founder); Andrea Lewis (technical writer); Marla Wood (bookkeeper); Paul Allen (co-founder); Bob O’Rear (programmer); Bob Greenberg (programmer); Marc McDonald (programmer); Gordon Letwin (programmer); Steve Wood (programmer); Bob Wallace (programmer); Jim Lane (project manager).

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Microsoft Windows Operating Environment, Version 1.0

Windows was Microsoft’s answer to the Macintosh’s graphical user interface. It initially competed with VisiCorp’s VisiOn, Digital Research’s GEM, IBM’s TopView and others. Windows 1.0, running on top of MS-DOS and supporting only tiled rather than overlapping windows, wasn’t widely adopted.

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The Apple II excited and enticed many people who’d never thought about buying a computer. And yet, what would they actually do with one?

VisiCalc, a 1979 spreadsheet program by Software Arts, was the “killer app” that spurred Apple II sales. Many customers bought an Apple specifically to run VisiCalc.

Apple IIe running VisiCalc

VisiCalc’s prototype was written in the Apple II’s integer BASIC language. The final version was developed on a minicomputer and written in assembler language for its 6502 microprocessor. Unable to fit in the base machine’s 16 kilobyte memory, it required the costlier 32 kilobyte model.

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Software Arts founders Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin

In spring 1978, while working on his MBA at Harvard, Bricklin created a prototype for VisiCalc using a PDP-10 BASIC timesharing system. That fall, he teamed up with longtime friend Frankston to begin developing the real product for the Apple II.

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Dan Fylstra with VisiOn and VisiCalc

Fylstra founded Personal Software, a software publisher, in 1976. The first products were games, but the 1979 release of VisiCalc become so successful that the company was renamed VisiCorp.

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