What Are the Features of Spreadsheets?

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Spreadsheets are some of the most common office computing document types today. Microsoft Excel is the most popular spreadsheet program, so Excel features have lately been copied by other spreadsheet program creators. Common characteristics of spreadsheet software include built-in support for complex mathematical calculations and formulas, the ability to generate graphs and summary "pivot tables" from data and the ability to customize what types of data are stored in which rows and columns.

Spreadsheet Definition and History

A spreadsheet program is a program that lets users enter data in a two-dimensional grid of individual cells. They're commonly used for storing data in a simple database and for financial and numerical calculations.

One of the first spreadsheet programs was VisiCalc, released for Apple computers in 1979. It helped show how personal computers could be useful as business tools rather than just for hobbyists to play with. Later popular spreadsheets include today's Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets, as well as other programs previously popular, especially 1980s favorite Lotus 1-2-3.

Spreadsheets have consistently been one of the most popular types of business software and while the software has gained new features, users of older tools like VisiCalc would quickly recognize the layout of a modern spreadsheet program.

Common Features of Spreadsheet Software

Spreadsheets provide more than just the ability to enter data in a particular grid-based format.

They generally provide powerful support for mathematical formulas, essentially a miniature programming language that skilled users can harness to perform calculations based on entered numeric data. Excel formulas are widely used in the financial industry for various types of mathematical modeling.

Spreadsheets are also versatile in terms of allowing people to enter data essentially where they want in ways that make sense to them. While it's often useful to group like data together in columns and associated data in rows, that's not mandatory, and spreadsheets can contain headers, notes and other information where people want to put it.

Most spreadsheet software also includes the ability to graph numerical data, which can be useful for quick data examination or even for creating graphics for presentations.

Collaboration Tools

Spreadsheet users have long shared spreadsheets by email or on shared drives and disks. Newer spreadsheet programs like Google Sheets and the latest versions of Microsoft Excel also allow multiple people to edit a spreadsheet at once, generally tracking changes so that people can be aware of what's been modified by whom.

Generally it's not possible for users of different brands of spreadsheet programs to collaborate in real time, but it is possible for one spreadsheet program to open files saved by another.

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