Today marks the 20th birthday of Analyse-it.
It was December 1997 when we shipped the first disks containing Analyse-it to paying customers. In some ways it seems just like yesterday, but in other respects software development and Analyse-it has come so far in those 20-years.
As many of you know Analyse-it wasn’t our first foray into developing statistical software. My co-founder in Analyse-it, Simon Huntington, had previously developed Astute in 1992 from a spark of an idea from Dr Rick Jones. Astute was the first statistical add-in for Microsoft Excel, initially released in 1992 for Excel 4.0, and released a few months before Microsoft’s Data Analysis Toolpak which appeared in Excel 5.0.
We started developing Analyse-it in 1996. Astute was no longer available and so we started work on developing a replacement. We were just a start-up business, keen to get our first product to market and so worked 16 hour days, 6 days a week, for 18 months to build that first release of Analyse-it.
Software development back then was pretty brutal. It had improved leaps and bounds since the 1980s, when we started developing software, but it was still time-consuming and sheer hard (mental) work. The software development tools were relatively basic and computing power was a fraction of what it is today. We initially developed Analyse-it in C++, the only commercially-viable programming language back then, and although a very flexible programming language it was very easy to produce bug-ridden and hard-to-maintain software. Each addition or change to the software code during development took 5-10 minutes to compile before the software could be run (or tested) to see the results. Not quite as slow as the mainframe era, but in an iterative process such as software development it was still tediously slow. Compilation often failed, due to typos in the source code, which then needed to be corrected and compilation restarted. Finally when we had an executable we could then start debugging and testing it. Windows 95 was the operating system of choice, but wasn’t the most resilient. It was easy to crash Windows resulting in a reboot, reload of the software development tools, and so on. Another 15 minutes gone.
Back then, the latest release of Excel was Microsoft Excel 95, which was basically Excel 5 with a new user interface and support for 32-bit processors. More than half of our users at that time were still using Excel 5, Windows 3.1 and 16-bit processors, so we had to support both processor architectures. We used Microsoft Visual C++ on Windows 95 and Borland C++ on Windows 3.1 to develop the 32- and 16-bit versions. Constantly switching between compilers, testing on different versions of Excel and different operating systems took more time – 3-4 months in fact to convert Analyse-it from a 32-bit only to a 32-bit and 16-bit application! In comparison, it recently took just over a day to make the latest versions of Analyse-it support both 32-bit and 64-bit processors!
Finally by October 1997 we had a saleable product. We had placed an advertisement in The Biochemist magazine a couple of months before and already had a backlog of orders. We had also launched the analyse-it.com web-site, a very basic web-site by today’s standards, but (believe it or not!) relatively modern for the time. Most users back then had VGA resolution screens, which were very small, 640x512 pixels, supporting only up to 256 colors. The web-site design now looks ridiculously tiny (see below), but that was all the space available on the screen without scrolling. In other ways it was quite revolutionary – we offered a free downloadable trial of Analyse-it, almost unheard-of back then. In those days you called a company on the telephone, spoke with a salesman, and maybe, if they considered you a reasonable prospect, they would post a disk through the post for a trial. Analyse-it was available for download directly from our web-site (albeit over a slow dial-up internet connection for most people), with no strings attached, pretty much as it still is today.
A screenshot of the first analyse-it.com web-site back in 1998
We finally sent out the first batch of orders for Analyse-it on the 21st December 1997. Delivery was by post and on a single 3.5” disk. We used a few compression algorithms to get the software to fit onto a single disk, making postage cheaper and saving costs – important factors back then as a start-up!
Feedback to the product was amazing. Customers raved about the product, on the telephone and by e-mail, and we received so much great feedback that the product went from strength to strength to what it is today. From those humble beginnings, we’re now approaching more than 40,000 users of Analyse-it and nearing version 5.0. Development is now much quicker due to modern software development tools and we’re able to add new features much more quickly. We’ve developed custom software solutions for the CLSI and other large companies based the reputation we've built over the last 20-years. And most of our sales still come from word of mouth – from happy customers.
Here’s to the next 20 years!