Spreadsheet Program Definition and Uses

Excel sheet with illustrative chart

Initially, a spreadsheet was, and can still be, a sheet of paper used to store and display financial data.

An electronic spreadsheet program is an interactive computer application such as Excel, OpenOffice Calc, or Google Sheets that mimics a paper spreadsheet.

As with the paper version, this type of application is used for storing, organizing, and manipulating data, but it also has a number of built-in features and tools, such as functions, formulas, charts, and data analysis tools that make it easier to work with and maintain large amounts of data.

In Excel and other current applications, individual spreadsheet files are referred to as worksheets or workbooks.

Spreadsheet File Organization

When you look at a spreadsheet program on screen - as seen in the image above - you see a rectangular table or grid of rows and columns. The horizontal rows are identified by numbers (1,2,3) and the vertical columns with letters of the alphabet (A, B, C). For columns beyond 26, columns are identified by two or more letters such as AA, AB, AC.

The intersection point between a column and a row is a small rectangular box known as a cell. A cell is for storing data in the spreadsheet. Each cell can hold a single value or item of data.

A collection of rows and columns of cells form a worksheet — which refers to a single page or sheet in a workbook.

Because a worksheet contains thousands of cells, each is given a cell reference or cell address to identify it. The cell reference is a combination of the column letter and the row number such as A3, B6, AA345.

So, to put it all together, a spreadsheet program, such as Excel, is used to create workbook files that contain one or more worksheets containing columns and rows of data storing cells.

Data Types, Formulas, and Functions

The types of data that a cell can hold include numbers and text.

Formulas are one of the key features of spreadsheet software and are used for calculations – usually involving data contained in other cells. Spreadsheet programs include a number of built-in formulas called functions that can be used to carry out a variety of common and complex tasks.

Storing Financial Data in a Spreadsheet

A spreadsheet is often used to store financial data. Formulas and functions that can be used on financial data include:

  • Performing basic mathematical operations such as summing columns and rows of figures.
  • Finding values such as profit or loss.
  • Calculating repayment plans for loans or mortgages.
  • Finding the average, maximum, or minimum values in a specified range of data.

Other Uses for an Electronic Spreadsheet

Other common operations that a spreadsheet can be used for include:

  • Graphing or charting data to assist users in identifying data trends.
  • Sorting and filtering data to find specific information.

Although spreadsheets are used extensively for data storage, they do not have the same capabilities for structuring or querying data as do full-fledged database programs.

Information stored in a spreadsheet file can also be incorporated into electronic presentations, web pages, or printed off in report form.

The Original "Killer App"

Spreadsheets were the original killer apps for personal computers. Early spreadsheet programs, such as VisiCalc (released in 1979) and Lotus 1-2-3 (released in 1983), were largely responsible for the growth in popularity of computers like the Apple II and the IBM PC as business tools.

The first version of Microsoft Excel was released in 1985 and ran only on Macintosh computers. Because it was designed for the Mac, it included a graphical user interface that included pulled down menus and point and click capabilities using a mouse. It wasn't until 1987 that the first Windows version (Excel 2.0) was released.

Was this page helpful?