Mike Liardet looks at Multiplan – Microsoft’s entry to the spreadsheet fray.

After releasing the Apple version of Visicalc about three years ago, Visicorp enjoyed at least 18 months completely unchallenged in the market for what has now become known as spreadsheet software. But in the last year and a half there has been a steady stream of Visicalc rivals arriving on the scene and, naturally, some of the established companies have been getting involved in this growth area.

Probably the best known of all the micro software companies, Microsoft’s pedigree goes right back to those prehistoric days of ‘core-store’, paper-tape and teletypes – 1975 in fact, when the first of a million microcomputer systems was equipped with a Microsoft Basic interpreter. Now Microsoft has augmented its own spreadsheet system: Multiplan. Will Multiplan further enhance Microsoft’s reputation for excellence? Will it be another Ford Edsel? (You should get this point if you have heard of a Ford Edsel and you definitely will if you haven’t!)

The first thing that strikes you when confronted with a copy of Multiplan is the packaging: Microsoft has obviously invested a lot of effort (and money as well, I am sure) in presenting its ‘new baby’ to maximum advantage. A heavy-duty transparent plastic case holds a substantial ring-bound manual, system disks, various leaflets and a few pieces of carefully positioned cardboard mouldings – simply there to mask out awkward gaps and present an uncluttered appearance through the transparent box. Readers who are concerned by such a flagrant wastage of the world’s resources on a mere piece of marketing-hype will doubtless be relieved to learn that you need not throw the box away after purchase – it readily converts into a sweet little bookstand to support your manual!

Anyway, underneath the packaging we eventually find the disks – my review copy was for the Apple II (DOS 3.3), but Multiplan is also available for The Apple III, CP/M systems and, of course, Microsoft’s MS-DOS. All versions are evidently functionally identical, with just a few pages at the start of the manual outlining any minor differences, so non-Apple owners should still bear with me! (I also had the opportunity to take a quick look at the MSDOS version on a Sirius, so have made occasional references to this, too. In particular, I have included benchmark results for the Sirius version, specifically to check out Multiplan’s performance with a new generation (8088) processor and all that extra memory capacity.)

Getting started

Getting started proved fairly easy – the ‘First Time’ instructions were not on page 1, where I like to see them, but a little bit of page-thumbing soon tracked them down. A bit of disk copying, data disk initialisation, and two or three minutes later I was faced with a reassuringly familiar display of a spreadsheet. The only hold-up in all this was to have a good chuckle at the latest piece of computer jargon, encountered in the instructions for seeking the system for optional (on the Apple) 80-column display mode: ‘Recable’ – to exchange 40-column video cable connection with 80-column!

The initial display is of the top left hand corner of the spreadsheet, showing seven spreadsheet columns and 20 rows, all completely blank. The remainder of the display is devoted to helpful prompts: the names of twenty different ‘commands’, a ‘what to do now’ message and status information, such as percentage of storage space remaining, current cursor position, etc. Both rows and columns are identified by numbers, unlike many systems which use the alphabet for column headings. The repercussions of this are fairly great, since whereas ‘Q99’ is unambiguously a reference to a specified cell, ‘1799’ clearly is not. Multiplan provides several alternatives for identifying cells, but the simplest is that they be written as ‘RyCx’ – eg, ‘R17C99’ – a little bit longer than ‘Q99’!

Moving around

Moving the cursor around the spreadsheet is very simple – single control-key hits (ie. simultaneously pressing ‘Control’ and one other key) move the cursor left, right, up and down, with the VDU screen window being ‘pulled along’ by the cursor if an attempt is made to move to a cell off the edge of the screen. Sensibly, the keys that achieve this movement are arranged in a diamond (on the Sirius the arrow keys are used) – easy to remember and easy to touch-type when you are looking at the screen. Further investigation reveals that there are also control-key hits to ‘home’ the cursor to the top left hand cell and to the bottom-right, and a ‘Go-to’ command where destination coordinates can be typed in, as well as a rapid scrolling facility where the cursor is moved several cells at one go.

Also of particular interest is a very powerful split-screen facility. The screen can be subdivided into display areas (called ‘windows’ in the manual), each displaying different parts of the spreadsheet, and the cursor can be quickly ‘jumped’ from one to the next. There are many possible uses for this: locking row and column headings for continual display, quick movement between different parts of the spreadsheet, and keeping totals or whatever continually in view when other parts of the spreadsheet are being modified. Moreover each window can be displayed with a nice surrounding border, and can also be ‘linked’ to another window so that columns or rows in both always line up correctly. If all this sounds a little confusing to the newcomer, then take heart. You can completely ignore the facility at first, but once you are ready for it, the chances are that however you want to lay-out your display then Multiplan will accommodate you.

Entering data

As with most spreadsheet systems, the ‘bread and butter’ activity centres on entering or changing numbers, titles and formulae. To achieve this, simply move the cursor to the cell to be changed and start typing whatever is required there. The only thing to watch out for is that text entry must be preceded by selecting ‘Alpha’ mode (simply press ‘A’ before typing the text) otherwise the chances are Multiplan will assume you are entering a command – occasionally disastrous. For example, a sensible abbreviation for Total-Costs-Yacht could be ‘TCY’. Enter this without pressing ‘A’ and Multiplan does a ‘Transfer-Clear-Yes’ wiping out the entire spreadsheet! Don’t believe it could happen? A PCW editor (I’ll spare his blushes) did it! Well, it probably wasn’t a yacht, but a yo-yo or a yard-of-ale or something…

The formulae themselves can be built up using a wide range of maths and other functions, including trig, standard deviation, string concatenation, logical and table look-up, etc. The notation used is the classic keyboard version of school maths notation, easily learned by anyone not already familiar with it. As we have already mentioned, formula references to cells require an RyCx’ notation – eg, the formula to add the first 2 cells on the first row could be written as ‘R1C1 + R1C2’. However, there is a little trap lurking for experienced spreadsheet users – the replication facility does no formula adjustment whatsoever. Thus, if the above formula was located at R1C3, and then copied to 99 cells below, each and every copy would be ‘R1C1 + R1C2’ and the expected Column 3 = Column 1 + Column 2 would not be achieved. It turns out that the original formula, quite correct if no replication is envisaged, should be ‘RC[-2| + RC[-1)’, meaning ‘add cell in current row two columns back, to one in current row one column back’. Now, wherever this formula is located, it will add together the two previous values on the row, and in particular, if replicated right down column 3 it will do the column sum correctly.

If typing ‘RC[-2] + RC[-1]’ seems like a bit of a fingerful (tactile equivalent of mouthful) then Multiplan to the rescue! Instead of working out ‘RC[-2]’, etc, simply use cursor moves in mid-formula entry and Multiplan will type in the formula for you. In the above example only the ‘+’ need be entered from the keyboard, the rest of the formula being built up by using the cursor to point to the cells to be referenced.

It is also possible to refer to cells by their row or column name and thus build up formulae like ‘profit = sales – costs’. Since (a) this is immediately comprehensible and (b) always replicates correctly, the extra typing involved is well worth it!

In conclusion, I must say that I did not greatly like Multiplan’s methodology for referencing cells. It should be noted that cell references occur not only in formulae, but are also required by the majority of commands (see below), so a major part of one’s time at the keyboard is spent using them. In fairness I must point out that (a) my previous spreadsheet has been with the Visicalc style of cell-reference and (b) that Multiplan has some compensations for this minor irritation with some excellent other features and facilities.


Thus far, we have looked at Multiplan’s basic essential facilities, but of course there are many other, typically more peripheral (in both senses!), functions needed to provide a comprehensive spreadsheet system. These extra functions are provided for by Multiplan commands, and invoked by selection from a command-menu.

Actually, in passing, we have already touched upon four commands provided by Multiplan – ‘Go-to’ cell, ‘Alpha’ for entering text, ‘Copy’ for replicating cells, and ‘Window’ for the split-screen facility. There are in fact 20 in all, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, and all permanently displayed at the bottom of the screen. Bearing in mind that there were only six letters of the alphabet to spare, the implementers have done a pretty good job of choosing 20 sensible names – probably the worst one is ‘Alpha’ (it couldn’t be ‘Text’ because that clashes with ‘Transfer’ and ‘Transfer’ couldn’t be ‘File’, ‘Storage’ or ‘Disk’ because F, S and D are in use, etc).

Anyway, in the unlikely event that a command’s meaning is unknown, or in the more probable event that the precise method of usage is unclear, there is an excellent ‘Help’ facility available. Basically the list of command names has its own cursor, which can be shifted along by pushing the space bar. Commands can be selected by moving the command-cursor then pushing ‘Return’ (or by just typing the command’s first letter – much quicker). However, if ‘?’ is hit instead of ‘Return’ the spreadsheet screen is replaced with a ‘help’ screen for the currently indicated command. Moreover the information is not just a few cryptic instructions, but a fairly comprehensive run-down which in some instances extends to several pages. By the way, all the help-screen information is read from disk when needed, and does not affect the precious memory allocation for the spreadsheet itself.

To get some idea of the command facilities available, here is a quick rundown of all 20:

  • Enables text to be entered at the current cursor position.
  • Blanks out one or more cells. Contents are blanked out, but display format assigned to cell is unchanged. Not the same as Delete since, in particular, the following rows or columns are not shifted.
  • Copies cells from one place to another (ie, replication). Relative-copy is not possible (see text above) – must do absolute copy of relative formula!
  • Deletes a row or column of cells, moving all subsequent rows/columns back by one.
  • Instead of correcting a long formula by retyping from scratch, this command can be used to apply the changes quickly.
  • Numerous different display formats are possible: different column widths, centre, left, right justify, scientific, integer, financial, primitive bar graph, and more besides! As an extra convenience, a default format can be specified, assigning the format you most expect to use to all cells not explicitly reformatted to something else.
  • Go to cell specified by its name or coordinates.
  • Gives general help information, not covered by the help-screens, for each specific command.
  • Inserts a blank row or column, moving all subsequent rows/columns along by one.
  • Locks or unlocks specified cells. Can permanently lock all formulae – useful for turnkey systems.
  • Moves a row or column to between two other row/columns.
  • Enables a cell or group of cells to be given a user-supplied name. This name can be used in formulae, and also by the ‘Goto’ command. It saves confusion if the name here is the same as the visible title.
  • Used to set basic operational features, eg, switch off auto-recalculation or audible error beeps. The former is very useful when the spreadsheet is getting fairly full and every change takes several seconds – not to be registered on the screen, but for its effects to permeate through the system. The latter is absolutely priceless if you work at home and your family ‘can’t stand that incessant cheeping’ (to quote my good lady).
  • Can print to printer or disk file. Option to print the formulae as well as the calculated values. This is useful for documenting or debugging the model. It’s also possible to print selected areas.
  • Finish – back to resident operating system (eg, CP/M, MS-DOS, etc).
  • Sorts calculated or entered numbers or text by suitably shuffling rows.
  • Load, save, delete and other disk file operations. Of particular note: Multiplan can read Visicalc data files, or read/write files in a well-documented external interchange format, as well as using its own internal disk format. As it can also print to disk, it is extremely versatile in its file-handling.
  • Can optionally be used for entering formulae or numbers.
  • Split screen facility.
  • Used to read in answers calculated by one spreadsheet as raw input data for another. Can be used for ‘consolidation’.


The documentation is comprehensive, clear and well-written. The bulk of it is in a stout ring-bound manual (minor niggle – the rings are not circular and tend to snag the pages when you are turning them quickly). It has obviously been put together with the sort of thoroughness we would expect from Microsoft, right from the Contents page at the front to the Index at the back. The basic material provided is:

  • System-specific instructions. How to create your working disks under your particular operating system.
  • Organised as seven lessons. Gives you key by key instructions, starting with simple cursor moves in lesson one through to multiple work-sheets at the end. Well illustrated.
  • In alphabetical order, everything you need to know about the command, key-strokes and formula-functions. Also includes a list of all system messages, together with advice on what to do when you encounter them.
  • Extra helpful information, including a glossary and notes for Visicalc experts – a nice touch!
  • Quick Reference Guide. A separate pocket book (16 pages), being a condensation of the reference section in the main manual.
  • Help Screens. Comprehensive instructions on-screen for every command and a few of the other facilities.
  • With this breadth of documentation, there should be something to please all levels of user. Complete beginners can try the tutorial. Experts will probably just use the quick reference guide or help-screens and everyone can make good use of the comprehensive index.

Sirius slip-up

Having given the Apple version a thorough work-over, I arranged a joyride on somebody else’s Sirius. The article was nearly complete – I just needed to pencil in the Sirius Benchmark times and then off to Mustique for yet another three weeks.

First problem: Sirius version of Multiplan manual temporarily mislaid. Well, I should know the system well enough by now. So, in preparation for Benchmark 1, I quickly set up the first 12 columns by 200 rows of the spreadsheet. (Readers familiar with the benchtests will know that this results in a display of 1.. 12 in the first row, 13. . 24 in the second, etc.)

Next I needed to set up column 13, each cell in it being the sum of the previous 12 in the row. Easy! Just use the row-sum function in column 13 of row 1, and then copy it down to all cells below it. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the correct syntax for using it. Anyway, after experimentation I found that ‘SUM(C1:C12)’ at least did not give a formula error message, but it did seem to be displaying the wrong answer. Okay – time to copy it. Well, much disk-whirring and clanking, then watch the calculation count-down on the VDU display. 45 minutes later; I’m still waiting and the disk is still whirring and clanking and countdown’s still not finished – I’m frightened to switch off in case I corrupt the disk (it’s not mine, anyway) – can’t stop it at the keyboard, etc. Anyway it took about 50 frustrating minutes.

So, what went wrong? Well, basically a minor slip-up in my use of the SUM formula. I eventually got it right (by using a help-screen, what else?): ‘SUM(RC[-12]:RC[-1])’ and the whole test was over in under a minute. The formula I had originally used did not add the row up, but calculated the whole 12 x 200 array of numbers, and of course this formula was then copied 200 times down the column – a bit of a hefty number-crunch!

Anyway, the moral of this story is: make a good effort to learn Multiplan’s cell referencing – it could save you a long wait!


We have taken a fairly fast swoop right through the major facilities and features of Multiplan; so fast that some very valuable features, not generally available in mere state-of-the-art spreadsheet systems, may have gone unnoticed. Just for the record.

Multiplan gives you:

  • If you need to sort columns of figures or text then it is impossible to do this without a ‘Sort’ command.
  • Multiple worksheets. Results from one worksheet can be communicated to another, useful for consolidation.
  • Multiple split-screens. Very flexible facility to design VDU screen display of spreadsheet.
  • Flexible file handling. In particular data interchange with other software is feasible, and Visicalc data files can be read (but not written! – no doubt Microsoft doesn’t want to encourage users to migrate that way!).
  • Available on 16-bit microprocessor (8088/6). The new 16-bit processors can handle a lot more memory, and spreadsheet systems which have been properly installed on them can use this extra memory for setting up bigger spreadsheets (see Benchmarks).
  • Comprehensive help-screens. In addition to these. Multiplan also provides more mundane, but by no means universally available, facilities – such as cell references by names, formula protection, formula printout, print to disk and formula editing.

Certainly Multiplan has a lot of facilities to offer, but what is it like to use? Well some minor complaints here: the row/column numbering scheme increases the amount of typing for formulae. You have to consider replication consequences when you enter a formula, rather than when you do the replication, you have to choose the ‘Alpha’ command before you enter text (okay, it’s only one extra character, but most other spreadsheet systems don’t do it this way). To balance these minor grumbles are comprehensive error messages, and understandable prompts for all input.

So finally, my advice to spreadsheetless owners of Apples, CP/M or MS-DOS systems, or to anyone looking for an upgrade: put it near the top of your list!

Benchmarks and other measurements

These tests were run on an Apple II system with 64k of RAM (which is in fact mandatory) and an 80-column display card (which is optional). Available space for the spreadsheet itself amounted to 21k. Figures are also included for the Sirius (with 128k of RAM, and theoretically extendable to 800k+), running MS-DOS and allowing greater storage space for the spreadsheet. Where the Sirius figures are different they are appended in parentheses after the Apple figures.

Incidentally, a Sirius retails for around £2500, and the nearest equivalent Apple system (but with lower disk capacity, half the RAM, 8-bit processor) would be around £1750.

  • Spreadsheet size: 63 columns wide by 255 rows.
  • Numeric precision: 14 digits.
  • Max column width: 32 characters.

The benchmark tests are described in ‘Which Spreadsheet’, PCW Feb 1983.

Benchmark 1: (a) max rows accommodated: 95 (235); (b) recalculation time: 60 (55) seconds – ie, 1.5 (4) rows per second: (c) recalculation time: 60 (55) seconds; (d) vertical scrolling: 6 (6) rows per second; horizontal scrolling: 4 (4) columns per second.

Benchmarks 2: max rows of text accommodated: 190 (Sirius not tested).

Benchmark 3: max rows of numbers accommodated: 190 (Sirius not tested).

Price: Around £150.


Documentation: 400+ pages, contents, tutorial, reference, index, quick reference and help-screens. Well-illustrated. Excellent.

User-friendliness: Consistent and easy to use — cell-referencing can be a little tricky!

Error-handling: 20+ error messages. Erroneous calculations (eg, zero-divides) displayed as special error values.

Facilities: Arithmetic and other functions: +, -, *, /, %, string operations, logic, descriptive statistics, trig, logs, look-up and more besides!

Configuration: version tested easily configured for different types of Apple screen.

Graphics: a let-down compared with the other facilities!

Interface to other software: specifically can read Visicalc files, and print to disk. Can also be interfaced to other software using data interchange format (requires programming skills to do this).

Spreadsheet overlays: yes – can do consolidation or merge information into existing spreadsheet.

Turnkey: Apple version is turnkey with all disk formatting, copying, etc, achievable without recourse to Apple DOS.

Insertion, deletion and replication: yes.

Display flexibility: just about everything you could possibly want. Excellent.

Protected cells: yes.

Formula printout: yes.

Formula editing: yes.

Automatic/manual recalculation: yes.

Out of memory: memory left permanently displayed. Recovers correctly when it runs out of memory.

Long jumps: can jump directly to any specified cell.

Sorts, searching and logic: yes.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, April 1983