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Professional Accounting and Finance Audit

Accounting AI needs its VisiCalc moment


Dan Bricklin’s electronic spreadsheet program transformed accounting in the 1980s, but does a new generation of artificial intelligence tools offer accountants use cases that come anywhere near the impact of VisiCalc?

30th May 2024
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“In those days, if you showed it to a programmer, he’d say ‘Yeah, that’s neat. Of course computers can do that – so what?’ But if you showed it to a person who had to do financial work with real spreadsheets, he’d start shaking and say, ‘I spent all week doing that.’ Then he’d shove his charge cards in your face.”

This isn’t OpenAI CEO Sam Altmann or Facebook humanoid Mark Zuckerberg on their latest attempts to push product, but Dan Bricklin, founder of VisiCalc, speaking in a 1989 interview with Byte magazine.

Written by Bricklin for the new Apple II personal computer (PC) and put on sale in 1979, VisiCalc was the first mainstream electronic spreadsheet and is rightly regarded as computing’s first ‘killer app’.

As some of you will know, the ‘real spreadsheets’ he mentions are two pages across the open fold of a paper ledger book – literally a "spread-sheet". The output of these paper spreadsheets often fed into larger, master spreadsheets, and changing any data in that chain could mean countless hours of work with a pencil, rubber and calculator.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the electronic spreadsheet transformed accounting, with Bricklin using the PC as a platform to remove repetitive and mindless calculation work. As Bricklin alludes to in the quote above, the accountants he spoke with about the system instantly recognised its implications for their profession – both good and bad.

Micro machines

Like many cynical Gen Xers, my first encounter with the humble PC was the iconic BBC Micro. My school had a couple plonked in the corner of one of the maths classrooms and occasionally we’d be let loose on them. It was great, but apart from developing a healthy addiction to games like Defender and Scramble, I remember a feeling of slight cognitive dissonance. 

“These machines are fun,” I thought, “even the ‘educational’ games, but what do they do? What impact will they actually have on my life?” Once I’d left our crumbling maths room, I don’t think I gave them a second thought. I’d argue this is the opposite of how accountants in the 80s felt about VisiCalc.

Early promise, but questions return

Having spent Spring 2024 traversing innumerable accounting events, conferences, festivals and expos, I’ve found myself thinking about the BBC Micro and other early iterations of the personal computer, and coming back to the same questions. But this time, they relate the latest waves of artificial intelligence hitting the breakwaters of the accounting profession. 

It’s been 18 months since ChatGPT burst into the public consciousness, and just over a year since OpenAI parked its tanks on accounting’s lawn with its infamous tax return calculations. The resulting sound and fury hasn’t exactly signified nothing, but have I seen a use case for accountants that comes anywhere near the impact of VisiCalc? At the moment, I’m saying no.

There are early signs of promise, and these systems can be roughly divided into two types. 

Firstly, there are ‘productivity assistant ’-style tools, which promise to cut down on clicks and save hard-pressed professionals time. At Accountex, Sage Copilot was heavily demoed and next month at Xerocon I have a suspicion we’ll hear more about JAX. These look very slick and in the right hands will undoubtedly save users time. However, they are part of a wider, fundamental shift in the way human beings use computers – away from pointing and clicking, and towards natural language interface. In this regard, any change feels gradual and tectonic rather than explosive.

Secondly, there are specific use case tools for things like client tax reviews, bookkeeping or audit. These feel a bit more ‘VisiCalc’, but I have yet to meet an accountant using them at scale and saving time at the same rate.

Genuinely revolutionary

Bricklin’s VisiCalc was a one-off, genuinely revolutionary program that changed a profession. Maybe there’s a successor to the spreadsheet throne amongst this new cohort of systems, or perhaps it’s still just a twinkle in an accountant or programmer’s eye.

As the personal computer laid down the foundations for VisiCalc, perhaps a new generation of work done on artificial intelligence will provide the bedrock for the next big breakthrough in accounting technology. Until then, the majority of accountants are likely to stick to the spreadsheets.

Replies (7)

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Jake Smith, AccountingWEB
By Jake Smith
30th May 2024 15:18

Loved the BBC - think our school had a model B that barely got used. My mum worked at a school with one and brought it home in the holidays for us to use. My favourite game was Chuckie Egg!

Thanks (2)
Replying to Jake Smith:
By janelm
30th May 2024 21:54

Ahhhh I still have nightmares about that big yellow bird getting out of its cage and making it so difficult on the higher levels.....! My dad similarly brought a BBC computer home in the holidays :-)

Thanks (1)
By Tornado
30th May 2024 15:20

"my first encounter with the humble PC was the iconic BBC Micro"

Curiously the 'Killer' software was actually in the BBC Acorn Micro and its successors in the form of the ARM processor originally called the Acorn RISC Machine and later the Advance RISC Machine (to appeal to a wider market). The rest is history with unimaginable numbers of electronic devices using that world beating technology every second of every day.

Talking of spreadsheets, I seem to remember playing with a spreadsheet type of program for the ZX80 and ZX81. This was over 40 years ago, but the principle was clearly brilliant.

Thanks (3)
Rob Swan
By Rob Swan
31st May 2024 10:45

Bit of a latecomer here....

My first spreadshet encounter was Lotus 1-2-3 (ver 2 if I remember), with a COLOUR! CGA (80 x 25) display and (rickerty-rackerty) 80 column Epson dot matrix paper chomper.

What has progress given us?
Not much in my case - appart from much larger sheets - I couldn't still do in that excellent program on a crappy old '286 with 640K.

AI, or at least 'generative' AI - the thing which just guesses stuff with a complex guessing algorithm which is 'programmed' with -sometimes dodgy - data, rather than logical program code... Hmmm.....
For the forseeable future, my guess is that bookkeepers and accountants will stick with reliable and predictable 'logical program code'...

My point - eventually - is 'Have we really made much progress in 40 years?' Or is 'progress' just more glitzy knobs, bells, whistles and confusing menus we don't need?

I still think most accouting software, while undoubtedly useful and beneficial, just gobbles transactions into a black hole from which they are extremely hard to extract (query) unless you happen to have spent many years mastering the black arts associated with your system of choice. (I have used Sage50, QB and Xero.) It just shouldn't be that way. I still use paper, admittedly very few transactions, because I know exactly where things go, I can see evrything easily and nothing 'disappears'. (And I keep a spreadsheet because HMRC say I have to!)

I still miss '1-2-3'.
OK... 'Slash-File-Save' ... "Coffee anyone?"

Thanks (4)
By carnmores
31st May 2024 12:09

For me in 1985 it was Supercalc it was magnificent it was far superior to early versions of excel

Thanks (1)
Replying to carnmores:
Rob Swan
By Rob Swan
31st May 2024 16:05

Ohhhh.... I remember the 'spreadsheet wars'...

Thanks (0)
Routemaster image
By tom123
31st May 2024 13:47

My father owned an IT company in the 1980s, and we had a PC like (but precursor to) computer at home.

I remember creating a graph.. I was probably 14. I too had that "this is fun but what's the point" view.

Little did I know that this would form the basis of my whole working life.

Thanks (2)