September 17, 2017

Excel is incredibly successful application development platform

The more I think about Excel the more it looks to me as an application development platform, probably the most successful ever.

My first programming language was BASIC. Therefore the user interface of my first programs was basically a sequence of questions, which required typing in answers. PRINT this, INPUT that, IF/THEN, GOTO here. I started reading books on computer languages, learned Pascal, C++, ASM and eventually went to study Computer Science. A rather standard story of a software developer.

For many people far from software development their first programs looked radically different. They didn't even know they were programs. Because they were spreadsheets.

Modern Computer Science identifies 3 programming concepts:
  • Imperative (e.g. BASIC, C++, Python)
  • Functional (e.g. List, ML, Haskell, OCaml, F#)
  • Declarative (e.g. SQL, Prolog)
While there are heated debates among CS enthusiasts whether Excel falls into the declarative or functional programming concept, or it's a separate category on its own, most people never think of spreadsheets as of any kind of programming at all. But that didn't stop them from creating their first application without even knowing about it, because it was not a program in traditional sense, it's a spreadsheet. Millions of people develop applications and don't even realize it. Isn't it amazing?

If you think about it for a moment, a spreadsheet is a great way of creating applications. No need to deal with UI libraries, dialogs and forms -- just write in a cell what you need where you need it and you're done. You don't even have to bother with aligning objects -- everything is already aligned. A spreadsheet is visual and reactive -- whatever change you make, the result is immediately visible. It has only two abstractions: a cell, and a formula, and therefore is very easy to learn.

Yes, spreadsheet apps don't have the polished, productionalized look of "real" applications. But my first BASIC program didn't look that either. Yet it did its job. One can argue that spreadsheets are not suitable for general purpose programming. But neither is SQL, yet it's great for its purpose.

Spreadsheets allowed millions of people without programming skills create practical, useful applications that solve real life problems. If this is not amazing success for an application platform, then what is?