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The Rise of "Killer" Apps



Word Processing

            The microcomputers that started the PC Revolution only had the capability to run small programs in BASIC or machine language, designed for specific applications. They found many uses in laboratories, classrooms and engineering. However they seldom found uses in business firms who were just beginning to use computer applications supplied by computer services using mainframe computers. Minicomputers were just starting to be used by some businesses and scientific facilities.

            Word processing was another computer application that became popular with law offices and the publishing industry. The word processing machines were really dedicated minicomputers operated with keyboards, CRT displays and high speed impact printers. They had the capability of saving text on some type of magnetic tape for future use but they did not compute, or do graphics.

            It is not surprising that one of the first microcomputer applications was word processing.  A programmer name Michael Shrayer was writing programs for the Altair 8080 computer and decided to write the manuals for the programs on the same machine that the programs ran on. He wrote a word processing program for the Altair in 1976 and called it The Electric Pencil.  This was written up in several personal computer magazines and became quite popular. It eventually ran on, many 8080 and Z-80 machines and was available in both cassette and floppy disk versions. 

            Other word processing programs were developed for the Apple II  ( Apple Write 1) and TRS-80 (Scripsit) both these computers had problems due to screen character size or lack of  both upper and lower case fonts. Other early word processing programs were PC Write, Easy Writer and Samna III.

There was a problem obtaining letter quality printers to use with PC word processors. Most of the daisy wheel or ball type printers were sold to manufacturers of dedicated word processing systems with proprietary interfaces and it was difficult and expensive to adapt them for use with PC’s.  Eventually, letter quality dot matrix printers were sold at a price that made them perfect for PC word processing.

With the development of larger capacity floppy disks and CP/M operating systems, much more capable word processing programs like WordStar and Word Perfect were introduced. These had even more features than the dedicated word processing machines and rapidly replaced them. Word Perfect was popular because its structure was similar to the old word processor machines and it was easy to re-train the operators to this new system.

When IBM introduced the IBM PC neither WordStar nor Word Perfect had a 16-bit version that would run on the PC.  IBM supplied a version of Easy Writer for their computer that was not as capable as either of the popular programs. Both companies rushed to upgrade their word processors to run on the IBM PC.

Microsoft quick to move into any profitable software field introduced their own word processor called Word.  By integrating Word with their DOS system, it was possible to use a great variety of printers with their program. This made Word very popular. Then Microsoft also integrated Word with their spreadsheet (Excel) and data base (Access) forming a unified system called Microsoft Office. This proved to be too much for the competition which faded into second tier systems. Microsoft has continued to add features to Office which now dominates the field.



            Accountants have always used large ruled sheets of paper upon which they could list the figures related to business over a period of time. These spreadsheets enabled them to analyze the relationships between business factors affecting the profit and loss of the firm. In 1961Prof. Richard Mattessich at the University of California wrote papers upon computerization of spreadsheets and some programs were written in FORTRAN to accomplish this on mainframe computers. However the main credit for implementing the idea must go to Dan Bricklin who came up with the idea of an electronic calculator as a student at Harvard Business School . He and Bob Frankston then wrote the electronic spreadsheet, software program called Visi Calc to run on the Apple II personal computer.

An electronic spreadsheet enables the user to organize information into columns and rows. The data can then be processed according to a formula entered into the program

The numbers can be added, subtracted, averaged, either across the rows or down the columns. If the numbers referenced in the formula are changed, the result is automatically changed.

The Apple II was the ideal machine to implement Visi Calc on because of its graphics capability, low cost, portability and floppy disk storage. An accountant could take the Apple II computer to the job and work with it almost as easily as a large book of ruled pads. It was so popular that the Apple II became known as the Visi Calc Machine among accountants. It helped make the Apple II one of the most successful computers ever sold.


Because of the difficulty obtaining software patents, Visi Calc was not patented, but it was protected by copyright of its appearance and methods. Nevertheless, other electronic spreadsheets appeared on the market. Super Calc for use with CP/M computers was very popular as well as DIF and Twain. In some cases Visi Calc sued the publishers of competing programs, but as the cases proceeded through the courts, in 1983, IBM came out with the 16-bit IBM PC.

In 1983, Mitch Kapor came out with Lotus 123 for the IBM PC that included features not found in Visi Calc and this became the most popular microcomputer program. Although Visi Calc was later ported to the PC, it was too little and too late.

In 1987, Borland International  produced a spreadsheet called Quattro Pro  and Microsoft developed Excel, both of these new spreadsheets had graphic capabilities not available in other programs.

The development of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office which included Excel, proved too much competition for stand-alone spreadsheet programs. This integrated software system enables the user to move data between spreadsheet, data base and word processing programs and makes the same information available in many forms.



Data Base Programs

            Data Base systems have been one the main functions of large mainframe computers, but early microcomputers did not have the memory capacity or data storage to run effective data base systems.  However Wayne Ratliff, a young programmer who worked with data base systems at Jet Propulsion Labs in California wrote a relational data base program that would run on his microcomputer. It would create a data base table, save and load data and also create ASCII data which could be displayed and output to a printer. Ratliff called his system Vulcan and sold it via mail order. It did not attract much attention in the software market until   one of the pioneer microcomputer people named George Tate saw it and recognized its potential. George Tate contacted Ratliff and convinced him to form a new company to market the data base program.  The company was named Ashton- Tate although there never was anyone named Ashton involved in the business. George Tate also renamed the program dBase II because that sounded more professional. There never was a dBase I but for marketing purposes, the designation “ II” sounded more completed.  dBase II ran on computers using the CP/M operating system. The dBase language was simple to learn and use quickly became the basis for many application programs. . dBase III was the next generation which ran on IBM PC’s and clones under DOS was well as versions for Macintosh.  The popularity of dBase spawned many clones and dBase compliers, one of them FoxBase was faster than dBase and became quite a competitor. Another, dbXL sold for much less than dBase. The result of this competition was a series copyright lawsuits started by Ashton-Tate against Fox Base and others in attempt to get the dbase language declared proprietary.  Many users were afraid that Ashton-Tate would seek royalties for their dBase applications and moved to alternatives.

            When Microsoft released Windows 3.0 and it became a great success, and there was great rush by software companies to release versions of their products to run under Windows. Ashton –Tate was unable to meet this demand and other systems were adopted by Windows users. Eventually Ashton-Tate was bought out by Borland who did manage to bring out a Windows version of dBase. However by then the market had moved elsewhere.

            As Microsoft further developed Windows into its dominant position, it brought along its data base system Access as part of Microsoft Office. Today Access is the most used data base system for simpler applications while more robust systems like Oracle are used for complex applications.


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