Spreadsheets (VisiCalc or "Visible Calculator" was released by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston in October 1979 - 32 years ago - originally for Apple II computer) were one of the very first Business Intelligence (BI) software (sold over 700,000 copies in six years).
It was released on October 19, 1979 - see the original Diary of Dan about it (also see notes of Peter Jennings here and here and especially detailed Bob Frankston's article here):
For historical purposes I have to mention that VisiCalc actually was not the first spreadsheet program invented (for example I am aware of multi-user spreadsheet software written before VisiCalc in USSR in PL/1 for mainframes with IBM's IMS Database as a backend ), but it is a first commercial spreadsheet introduced on American market and it was a turning point of PC industry.
The "Visible Calculator" went on sale in November of 1979 and was a big hit. It retailed for US$100 and sold so well that many dealers started bundling the Apple II with VisiCalc. The success of VisiCalc turned Apple into a successful company, selling tens of thousands of the pricey 32 KB Apple IIs (no matter how hard Bob Frankston tried, he could not fit VisiCalc in the 16 KB of RAM on the low-end Apple II. VisiCalc would only be available for the much more expensive 32 KB Apple II) to businesses that wanted them only for the spreadsheet. Version of VisiCalc for Atari was even retailed for $200!
VisiCalc was published without any Patent and it is a living prove that Patent System currently is useless for people, abused by large corporations for their own benefit, and it is actually a brake for innovations and it is not protecting inventors. Absence of patent protection for VisiCalc created the Spreadsheet Revolution and Innovations (SuperCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, QuattroPro, Excel, OpenOffice's Calc, Google's Spreadsheets and many others) and tremendously accelerated PC industry.
As Dan Bricklin said it by himself "We all borrowed from each other" and as George Bernard Shaw said: "If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."
Application of Spreadsheets in the BI field began with the integration of OLAP (On-Line Analytical Processing) and Pivot tables. In 1991, Lotus (in addition to 1-2-3) released Improv with Pivoting functionality (also see Quantrix as a reborned [originally in 1994-95] Improv), followed by Microsoft’s release (in Excel 5) of PivotTable in 1993 (trademarked by Microsoft). 500+ millions people currently using Excel and at least 5% of them using it for BI and Data Visualization purposes. PowerPivot added to Excel 2010 speedy and powerful in-memory columnar database which enables millions of end-users to have a self-serviced BI.
Essbase was the first scalable OLAP software to handle large data sets that the early spreadsheet software was incapable of. This is where its name comes from: Extended Spread Sheet Database (Essbase owned by Oracle now). Currently one of the best OLAP and BI software is SSAS (Analysis Services from Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 and upcoming SQL Server 2012 with its new Tabular mode) and Excel 2010 with its PowerPivot, PivotTables and Pivot Charts is one of the most popular front-end for SSAS.
There is no doubt that Excel is the most commonly used software for "BI purposes". While Excel is general business software, its flexibility and ease of use makes it popular for data analysis with millions of users worldwide. Excel has an install base of hundreds of millions of desktops: far more than any other "BI platform". It has become a household name.With certain precaution it can be used for a good or at least prototyping Data Visualization (most of charts below created with Excel):
From educational utilization to domestic applications to prototyping (or approximated) Data Visualization and enterprise implementation, Excel has been proven incredibly indispensable. Most people with commercial or corporate backgrounds have developed a proficient Excel skillset. This makes Excel the ultimate self-service BI platform and spreadsheet technologies as a common ground for all viable Data Visualization technologies on market.