By Thomas E. Weber
Without fanfare, 2010 marked the 25th anniversary of Microsoft Excel. Thomas E. Weber tracks down the program's developer and discovers how it almost didn't make it into stores—and the big idea Bill Gates lost forever. In a year when big names froExm the digital realm profoundly affected the world—Mark Zuckerberg or Julian Assange, take your pick—it's appropriate to add one more: Douglas Klunder.
While largely unnoticed, 2010 marked the 25th anniversary of perhaps the most revolutionary software program ever, Microsoft Excel, and Klunder, now an unassuming attorney and privacy activist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state, gave it to us.
These days, with daily life so intertwined with the digital world, it isn’t hard to acknowledge the ramifications of a Facebook or a WikiLeaks. Back in 1985, though, most folks still couldn’t understand why they’d want a personal computer (“Maybe I can keep my recipes on it?”), let alone contemplate how software might alter the course of human events. Reagan was in the White House, Wham! had the year’s top song (“Careless Whisper”), and Microsoft had yet to go public.
Yet if you had to pick a technological development that has fundamentally altered society, you could do worse than Excel. Sure, PowerPoint gets all the laughs for its clichéd role in the corporate environment. But Excel is the program that has launched thousands of startups and justified millions of layoffs, planned out household budgets and charted the course for complex securities that almost took down the economy. For better or worse, it is the software that has given everyone the means to play with numbers and ask, “What if?”
For Doug Klunder, the mission 25 years ago wasn’t so grandiose. As lead developer of Excel, he was handed the job of vaulting Microsoft—then known best for MS-DOS, the operating system in IBM’s PCs—to the forefront in business applications. “We decided it was time to do a new, better spreadsheet,” recalls Klunder, now 50, who joined Microsoft straight out of MIT in 1981 (part of the interview process included lunch with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at a Shakey’s pizza parlor).