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As far as I can remember there have been 3 worksheets ("Sheet1", "Sheet2", "Sheet3") by default in any new MS Excel's workbook. What is the reason for that? I'm pretty sure the most popular number of worksheets used by most users is 1 (come on, admit it).

This bugs me and I keep deleting unused worksheets when I finish working with the workbook but most people don't.

Those 2 unused worksheets actually "take" around extra 1KB of disk space (just did a little experiment here with Excel 2010). I know a kilo isn't such a big deal nowadays but if this was the case in the past, then it's not a very good design if you ask me.

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I once sent round a spreadsheet to some thirty or so people, almost all of whom would have looked at it, with a single worksheet, entitled "Email me if you saw this" or something similar. I got two response from it (one from one whom I expected to see it, one surprised me slightly). I imagine most people just never notice the worksheet functionality at all. –  Chris Morgan Aug 18 '11 at 3:40
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@GUI Junkie. "It's a nice question, but who cares?" If you're not interested in a question feel free to skip over it - there's no site-requirement to respond to every question posted. Cheers, –  gef05 Aug 18 '11 at 15:04
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Just tweeted @spolsky this question. I worked on the Excel team a long time ago. Maybe he has insight. –  GollyJer Mar 6 '12 at 22:09
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In Excel 2010 you have 5 sheets by default, not 3. So the question is not correct imo. The amount can be changed by the user, but after a default installation, it's 5. –  Bart Gijssens Mar 7 '12 at 10:38
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It's probably greater than 1 so that users can discover that the feature to have multiple worksheets exists. –  Series8217 Apr 4 '12 at 0:02

5 Answers 5

I was on the Excel team when this was designed.

Backstory

If you remember the version of Excel right before you could have multiple worksheets, that version had a concept, IIRC called WORKSPACES, that let you link multiple worksheets into a workspace which could be opened and closed together.

The idea was that if you had 7 spreadsheets, one macro sheet, and four chart sheets that you always used together, you could link to all of them in a "workspace" which could be opened all at once. The spreadsheets still lived in their own files.

This was complicated and confusing and not used by a lot of people, but a lot of users still had 7 spreadsheets, one macro sheet, and four chart sheets that they wanted to use together.

In the meantime, Lotus introduced "3D worksheets" and was telling everybody that this was the next thing.

So the team was trying to design something that was the superset of workspaces and 3D worksheets, and that's where the design came about for workbooks with multiple tabs.

A workbook was stored in an OLE DOCFILE which is a compound document that allows you to put "a whole file system in a single file". Old, existing Excel code that only knew about worksheets could still work perfectly, and just thought it was loading or saving a worksheet, even though it was actually loading or saving a single piece of a compound document.

Hence

The program managers and developers on that feature (mainly Craig Unger) tried various approaches:

  • 1 sheet default was logical but didn't "advertise" the possibility of multiple sheets.
  • Using a large number of sheets (16 or 256) would be similar to how rows and columns work (you always get a lot of blank ones) but was slow and memory-intensive and annoying to people who didn't need all those sheets and then had to delete the ones they weren't using.
  • 3 was a nice compromise; it showed people that the feature existed without being too burdensome.
    And of course every decision has to have an option in the options dialog, so you can change the default number of new sheets in a workbook.
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This kind of answer is what makes the Stackexchange sites so great. I just typed "excel why 3 default sheets" on Google and find an answer from the Excel team itself. Brilliant. –  this.lau_ Aug 13 '12 at 2:30
    
you can't better for a 'why was this designed like this ...' question than 'i was on the team that made the decision ...' lol –  ColinSharpe 2 days ago

MS has not come out to explain why they choose 3 as the default, but one could guess that, as Neil mentioned, it's in order to introduce the functionality to new users without having to shove a tutorial down their throat.

Three is a nice number becuase there's a fair amount of people would make the connection that you can have 2 data sheets and a third sheet that consolidates that data. Plus to some real newbies, two sheets might come off as a 'front and back' and they might not realize that you can add more.

I work in video game production and we often use 3 as a magic number in presentations when introducting an idea of multiple things since people genearlly see 2 things and think in terms of this-or-that and if you give 3 examples, people tend to realize there are 'multiple' things.

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I do not know the reason, but you can change this default. TOOLS > OPTIONS > Sheets in new workbook.

Through VBA, you can change this also, via

Application.SheetsInNewWorkbook
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Every day's a school day! I thought you could edit the "blank workbook" template to do the same? I'd better delete my answer if not... –  Neil Barnwell Aug 16 '11 at 23:04
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Your answer doesn't answer the original question, but it's still a good answer nonetheless! –  Kenny Evitt Aug 24 '11 at 23:00

My guess is so that it was immediately obvious to users that Excel in fact had the functionality to do this.

As an aside - it's not actually part of the design of Excel, per-sé. You could edit the xlt file in your templates directory to remove the two superfluous worksheets. It's just what they chose to put in the "Blank Spreadsheet" template out of the box

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Most answers you'd probably get to this question are rationalizations. The reason MS has sticked with it is probably because many of those rationalizations make sense :D

My personal guess is that the actual reason isn't all that clever, and more along the lines:

"Well the tester assigned to this new "sheets" feature asked for a default that was higher than 1 sheet, to speed up testing. We just went with 3 cause that seemed like a nice number, and never got around to changing it."

In any case: good question, would be lovely to see the actual answer from someone 'who was there' pop up :D

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quite possible, yes ... –  giraff Aug 18 '11 at 7:37
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Trying to refute speculation with speculation? –  Kzqai Aug 18 '11 at 14:16

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