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a computer program that allows easy entry and manipulation of figures, equations, and text, used esp for financial planning and budgeting
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


(application, tool)
(Or rarely "worksheet") A type of application program which manipulates numerical and string data in rows and columns of cells. The value in a cell can be calculated from a formula which can involve other cells. A value is recalculated automatically whenever a value on which it depends changes. Different cells may be displayed with different formats.

Some spreadsheet support three-dimensional matrices and cyclic references which lead to iterative calculation.

An essential feature of a spreadsheet is the copy function (often using drag-and-drop). A rectangular area may be copied to another which is a multiple of its size. References between cells may be either absolute or relative in either their horizontal or vertical index. All copies of an absolute reference will refer to the same row, column or cell whereas a relative reference refers to a cell with a given offset from the current cell.

Many spreadsheets have a "What-if" feature. The user gives desired end conditions and assigns several input cells to be automatically varied. An area of the spreadsheet is assigned to show the result of various combinations of input values.

Spreadsheets usually incorporate a macro language, which enables third-party writing of worksheet applications for commercial purposes.

In the 1970s, a screen editor based calculation program called Visi-Calc was introduced. It was probably the first commercial spreadsheet program. Soon Lotus Development Corporation released the more sophisticated Lotus 1-2-3. Clones appeared, (for example VP-Planner from Paperback Software with CGA graphics, Quattro from Borland) but Lotus maintained its position with world-wide marketing and support - and lawyers! For example, Borland was forced to abandon its Lotus-like pop-up menu.

While still developing 1-2-3, Lotus introduced Symphony, which had simultaneously active windows for the spreadsheet, graphs and a word processor.

Microsoft produced MultiPlan for the Macintosh, which was followed by Excel for Macintosh, long before Microsoft Windows was developed.

When Microsoft Windows arrived Lotus was still producing the text-based 1-2-3 and Symphony. Meanwhile, Microsoft launched its Excel spreadsheet with interactive graphics, graphic charcters, mouse support and cut-and-paste to and from other Windows applications. To compete with Windows spreadsheets, Lotus launched its Allways add-on for 1-2-3 - a post-processor that produced Windows-quality graphic characters on screen and printer. The release of Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows was late, slow and buggy.

Today, Microsoft, Lotus, Borland and many other companies offer Windows-based spreadsheet programs.

The main end-users of spreadsheets are business and science.

Spreadsheets are an example of a non-algorithmic programming language.

This article is provided by FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing (foldoc.org)


Software that simulates a paper spreadsheet (worksheet), in which columns of numbers are summed for budgets and plans. It appears on screen as a matrix of rows and columns, the intersections of which are called "cells." The cells are filled with (1) labels, (2) numeric values or (3) formulas.

Labels are descriptive text such as "Rent" and "Gross Sales." Values are the actual numeric data, and formulas command the spreadsheet to do the calculations; for example, SUM CELLS A5 TO A10.

Labels, Values and Formulas
In this Microsoft Excel example, the labels are in cells A1, A2 and A3, and numeric values are in B1 and B2. The formula in B3 is "subtract B2 from B1." In Excel, typing the equals sign starts the formula creation.

The Formulas
Formulas are the spreadsheet's magic, and they are easy to create. You click a cell and then press the key (+, -, etc.) of the arithmetic operation that affects it. For example, the creation of a formula might be "the contents of this cell PLUS the contents of this cell DIVIDED BY the contents of this cell."

The Ripple Effect
After numbers are added or changed, the formulas recalculate the data automatically or with the press of a key. Since the contents of any cell can be calculated with or copied to any other cell, a total of one column can be used as a detail item in another column. For example, the total from a column of expense items can be carried over to a summary column showing all expenses. If the contents of a cell in the detail column changes, its column total changes, which is then copied to the summary column, and the summary total changes.

What If?
The ripple effect lets you create a plan, plug in different assumptions and immediately see the impact on the bottom line. This "what if?" capability makes the spreadsheet indispensable for budgets, plans and other equation-based tasks.

It Started with VisiCalc
One of the major forces behind the personal computer revolution in the 1980s, the spreadsheet originated with VisiCalc in 1978 for the Apple II, followed by SuperCalc, Multiplan, Lotus 1-2-3 and others. See VisiCalc, OLAP, analytical database engine and XL abc's.
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