What is a Spreadsheet?

Posted By BrokenClaw on December 2, 2007

A spreadsheet is a computer application used primarily to create, edit, and display financial and mathematical data on a grid of columns and rows. The name pre-dates computer applications, from the days when a large handwritten worksheet had to be spread across multiple sheets of paper.

Each box on a spreadsheet is called a cell. Each cell can contain text or a number, including currency or a date. Cells can be combined to make larger cells. What defines a spreadsheet, making it different from a simple table of data, is that a cell can also contain, in the background, a mathematical equation, or formula, using data from other cells, which displays as the answer to the formula.

For example, a simple spreadsheet might consist of the batting statistics of a baseball team. The cell containing the batting average of a particular player would be a formula of hits divided by at bats, rounded to 3 digits. The cell containing the total hits for the team would be a formula of the sum of the hits of all the players. Likewise the cell containing the total at bats for the team would be a sum. The cell containing the team batting average would be a formula of the total hits divided by the total at bats.

In this way a spreadsheet is interactive. Changing the value in one cell changes the value in any cell which is connected to it by a formula. It’s easy to see how baseball statistics can be kept in real time using a spreadsheet. The same is true in business. Changing a single cell, such as the cost of a product or the markup percentage, will automatically update the rest of the spreadsheet.

The computer spreadsheet program, particularly one called VisiCalc on the Apple II, is often credited with turning the personal computer from an expensive hobby into a real business tool.

On the early IBM PCs, the major spreadsheet programs were Lotus 1-2-3® and Quattro Pro®. When Windows became the pervasive operating system, Microsoft’s own Excel program jumped in and eventually became the market leader on both Windows and Apple machines.

Today’s spreadsheets are much more than just a page of number crunchers. They can grow to huge proportions, they can import data from other computer programs, and like word processors, they can have charts and other graphics embedded.

A spreadsheet program is an integral part of a group of software known collectively as an office suite or productivity suite, which may include a word processor, database, and presentation software. Open Office is a suite of open source applications which is a free alternative to Microsoft Office. More recently, online spreadsheets, part of the phenomenon known as cloud computing, provide another option for casual users.

A spreadsheet is still primarily a business application, and most home computer users will never have a need to use one. However, a spreadsheet could be used for some home-based projects, such as a home inventory, or expense report, or list of club members, or team statistics. However, without previous training and experience, you’d be better off finding a more user-friendly program written specifically for those applications.

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