Microsoft Excel

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Most people don't realize that Microsoft's experience with spreadsheets extends back to the early '80s. Over the years, Microsoft's spreadsheet offerings have come a long way, from the barely adequate MultiPlan to the powerful Excel 2007.

In 1982, Microsoft released its first spreadsheet, MultiPlan. Designed for computers running the CP/M operating system, the product was subsequently ported to several other platforms, including Apple II, Apple III, XENIX, and MS-DOS.

MultiPlan essentially ignored existing software user-interface standards. Difficult to learn and use, it never earned much of a following in the United States. Not surprisingly, Lotus 1-2-3 pretty much left MultiPlan in the dust.

Excel sort of evolved from MultiPlan, first surfacing in 1985 on the Macintosh. Like all Mac applications, Excel was a graphics-based program (unlike the character-based MultiPlan). In November 1987, Microsoft released the first version of Excel for Windows (labeled Excel 2.0 to correspond with the Macintosh version). Because Windows was not in widespread use at the time, this version included a runtime version of Windows - a special version that had just enough features to run Excel and nothing else. Less than a year later, Microsoft released Excel Version 2.1. In July 1990, Microsoft released a minor upgrade (2.1d) that was compatible with Windows 3.0. Although these 2.x versions were quite rudimentary by current standards (see Figure 1-2) and didn't have the attractive, sculpted look of later versions, they attracted a small but loyal group of supporters and provided an excellent foundation for future development.

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(Photo courtesy of Microsoft)

Figure 1-2: The original Excel 2.1 for Windows. This product has come a long way.

Excel's first macro language also appeared in Version 2.The XLM macro language consisted of functions that were evaluated in sequence. It was quite powerful, but very difficult to learn and use. As you'll see, the XLM macro language was replaced by Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which is the topic of this book.

Meanwhile, Microsoft developed a version of Excel (numbered 2.20) for OS/2 Presentation Manager, released in September 1989 and upgraded to Version 2.21 about 10 months later. OS/2 never quite caught on, despite continued efforts by IBM.

In December 1990, Microsoft released Excel 3 for Windows, which boasted a significant improvement in both appearance and features (see Figure 1-3). The upgrade included a toolbar, drawing capabilities, a powerful optimization feature (Solver), add-in support, Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) support, 3-D charts, macro buttons, simplified file consolidation, workgroup editing, and the ability to wrap text in a cell. Excel 3 also had the capability to work with external databases (via the Q+E program). The OS/2 version upgrade appeared five months later.

Figure 1-3: Excel 3 was a vast improvement over the original release.

(Photo courtesy of Microsoft)

Figure 1-3: Excel 3 was a vast improvement over the original release.

Version 4, released in the spring of 1992, not only was easier to use but also had more power and sophistication for advanced users (see Figure 1-4). Excel 4 took top honors in virtually every spreadsheet product comparison published in the trade magazines. In the meantime, the relationship between Microsoft and IBM became increasingly strained; Excel 4 was never released for OS/2, and Microsoft has stopped making versions of Excel for OS/2.

Figure 1-4: Excel 4 was another significant step forward, although still far from Excel 5.

(Photo courtesy of Microsoft)

Figure 1-4: Excel 4 was another significant step forward, although still far from Excel 5.

Excel 5 hit the streets in early 1994 and immediately earned rave reviews. Like its predecessor, it finished at the top of every spreadsheet comparison published in the leading trade magazines. Despite stiff competition from 1-2-3 Release 5 for Windows and Quattro Pro for Windows 5 - both were fine products that could handle just about any spreadsheet task thrown their way - Excel 5 continued to rule the roost. This version, by the way, was the first to feature VBA.

Excel 95 (also known as Excel 7) was released concurrently with Microsoft Windows 95. (Microsoft skipped over Version 6 to make the version numbers consistent across its Office products.) On the surface, Excel 95 didn't appear to be much different from Excel 5. Much of the core code was rewritten, however, and speed improvements were apparent in many areas. Importantly, Excel 95 used the same file format as Excel 5, which is the first time that an Excel upgrade didn't use a new file format. This compatibility wasn't perfect, however, because Excel 95 included a few enhancements in the VBA language. Consequently, it was possible to develop an application using Excel 95 that would load but not run properly in Excel 5.

In early 1997, Microsoft released Office 97, which included Excel 97. Excel 97 is also known as Excel 8. This version included dozens of general enhancements plus a completely new interface for developing VBA-based applications. In addition, the product offered a new way of developing custom dialog boxes (called UserForms rather than dialog sheets). Microsoft tried to make Excel 97 compatible with previous versions, but the compatibility was far from perfect. Many applications that were developed using Excel 5 or Excel 95 required some tweaking before they would work with Excel 97 or later versions.

CROSS- I discuss compatibility issues in Chapter 26.


Excel 2000 was released in early 1999 and was also sold as part of Office 2000. The enhancements in Excel 2000 dealt primarily with Internet capabilities, although a few significant changes were apparent in the area of programming.

Excel 2002 (sometimes known as Excel XP) hit the market in mid-2001. Like its predecessor, it didn't offer a raft of significant new features. Rather, it had a number of minor new features and several refinements of existing features. Perhaps the most compelling new feature was the ability to repair damaged files and save your work when Excel crashed.

Excel 2003 (released in Fall 2003) was perhaps the most disappointing upgrade ever. This version had very few new features. Microsoft touted the ability to import and export extensible Markup Language (XML) files and map the data to specific cells in a worksheet - but very few users actually need such a feature. In addition, Microsoft introduced some "rights management" features that let you place restrictions on various parts of a workbook (for example, allow only certain users to view a particular worksheet). In addition, Excel 2003 had a new Help system (which now puts the Help contents in the task pane) and a new "research" feature that lets you look up a variety of information in the task pane. (Some of these require a fee-based account.)

Note For some reason, Microsoft chose to offer two sub-versions of Excel 2003. The XML and rights management features are available only in the standalone version of Excel and in the version of Excel that's included with the Professional version of Office 2003. Because of this, Excel developers may now need to deal with compatibility issues within a particular version!

Excel 2007, the focus of this book, is part of the Microsoft 2007 Office System. This upgrade is clearly the most significant ever. The user interface has been completely revamped. Menus and toolbars have been replaced by a new Ribbon UI (see Figure 1-5). Excel 2007's grid size is 1,000 times larger than in previous versions, and the product uses a new open XML file format. Other improvements include improved tables, conditional formatting enhancements, major cosmetic enhancements for charts, and document themes. It remains to be seen how the market will react to such an extreme upgrade. Clearly, Excel 2007 is easier for beginners, but long-time users will spend a lot of time wondering where to find their old commands.

Figure 1-5: Excel 2007 uses a new Ribbon user interface.

So there you have it: 28 years of spreadsheet history condensed into a few pages. It has been an interesting ride, and I've been fortunate enough to have been involved with spreadsheets the entire time. Things have changed. Microsoft not only dominates the spreadsheet market, it virtually owns it. What little competition exists is primarily in the form of "open source" products such as OpenOffice and StarOffice. You'll also hear about up-and-coming Web spreadsheets such as Google Spreadsheets. In reality, these are not even considered minor threats to Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft's biggest competitor is itself. Users tend to settle on a particular version of Excel and have very little motivation to upgrade. Convincing users to upgrade to the radically different Excel 2007 may be one of Microsoft's biggest challenges yet.


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