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spreadsheet

What is a spreadsheet?

A spreadsheet is a computer program that can capture, display and manipulate data arranged in rows and columns. Spreadsheets are one of the most popular tools available with personal computers.

A spreadsheet is generally designed to hold numerical data and short text strings. In a spreadsheet program, spaces that hold items of data are called spreadsheet cells. These can be renamed to better reflect the data they hold and can be cross-referenced through row numbers and column letters.

A single spreadsheet can be used as a worksheet to compile data for a purpose, or multiple sheets can be combined to create an entire workbook.

Each column or row cell references a value and is labeled according to its placement (for example: A1, A2, A3). Data can be exported as a CSV file and imported into other software or vice versa.

Let's take a closer look at some of the features spreadsheets offer.

A GIF illustrating a new data type being created in Microsoft Excel.

What are some commonly used spreadsheet features?

The following are just a few of the features available in most spreadsheet programs.

Cell formatting

Within the spreadsheet, selected cells can be formatted to represent various numeric values. For example, financial data can be given accounting formatting, which will apply decimal places and commas to represent dollars and cents.

Formulas

Under the formula bar, users can perform calculations on the contents of a cell against the contents of another cell. For example, if a person were using the spreadsheet to reconcile transactions, they could highlight all the cells that need to be added up and insert a sum function.

Pivot tables

Using a pivot table, users can organize, group, total, average or sort data via the toolbar. 

It's important to note that the exact tools and functions will vary depending on the application the user chooses.

Common spreadsheet applications

Daniel Bricklin and Bob Frankston created the first spreadsheet application, named VisiCalc for "visible calculator." It was popular on the Apple II, one of the first computers used by businesses.

Lotus 1-2-3 surpassed VisiCalc to became the program that cemented the IBM PC as the preeminent personal computer in business during the 1980s and 1990s. IBM acquired Lotus in 1995 and continued selling Lotus 1-2-3 through 2013, when it discontinued the spreadsheet application, which had fallen behind Microsoft Excel in the '90s and never recovered.

Some commonly used spreadsheet software programs today:

  • Microsoft Excel as part of the Microsoft Office suite and cloud-based subscription service Microsoft 365 (formally Office 365). It is available for Windows, macOS, Android and iOS.
  • Google Sheets: Part of Google's web-based application suite, Google Workspace. Google Sheets is free and also available as a desktop application for Google Chrome OS and assorted mobile OSes, such as Android and iOS.
Microsoft Excel vs Google Sheets at a glance.
  • Apache Open Office Calc: For Linux, macOS and Windows, ports of the free Apache Open Office are also available for other OSes. It was first released in 2012, but its roots go back to 2002.
  • LibreOffice Calc: Full-featured spreadsheet app that is a part of the free LibreOffice suite. LibreOffice and Apache Open office trace their roots to the same codebase, hence the same name for their spreadsheet application.
  • Thinkfree Office: A free full productivity suite with a spreadsheet specifically designed to provide a consistent experience across different devices. A version is available online with cloud storage.

While Lotus 1-2-3 was the first to introduce cell names and macros, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets implemented a graphical user interface and the ability to point and click using a mouse.

Most professional spreadsheet applications offer tutorials and templates to help users get started using the tool.

LibreOffice suite's Calc spreadsheet
LibreOffice suite's Calc spreadsheet

What are spreadsheet controls?

Spreadsheet controls are measures a business's accounting team uses to safeguard the integrity and accuracy of its bookkeeping practices and of financial records. It is an ongoing effort to rapidly detect and resolve errors and maintain the security of all data. Thorough training is important to the success of spreadsheet control programs.

Features of a spreadsheet control program should include:

  • Access control (usernames, passwords, biometrics)
  • Up-to-date list of authorized users
  • Access restrictions on cells performing critical computations
  • Strong encryption
  • Outgoing data accuracy checks
  • Incoming data accuracy checks
  • Routine maintenance of network hardware
  • Prevention of data loss/corruption through cross-referencing checksumprocesses
  • Comprehensive testing of latest spreadsheet functions/features
  • Scheduled archiving/incremental backup
  • Storage provisions offsite
  • Backup/archiving redundancy, use of multiple media types
  • Data recovery procedures in place
  • Ease of use and flexibility
This was last updated in August 2021

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