Three Minutes: Godfathers of the Spreadsheet

Twenty-five years ago, personal computers got serious. The occasion: The introduction of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and the original "killer app."

VisiCalc enjoyed a relatively brief time in the sun. The program made its debut in 1979 and saw its sales peak in 1982. It was sold to Lotus Development only three years later, brought down by 1-2-3 and squabbles between creator Software Arts and marketer VisiCorp.

But VisiCalc changed the world by bringing the Apple II into offices worldwide.

In May, the Software History Center in Boston reunited veterans of the PC's first decade to reminisce and exchange war stories. The luminaries included the three principals behind VisiCalc: Dan Bricklin, who conceived the idea; Bob Frankston, who programmed VisiCalc; and Dan Fylstra, whose VisiCorp brought the product to a surprised world. Here are edited versions of interviews with all three.

VisiCalc Co-Creator Dan Bricklin

Dan Bricklin
Twenty-five years after inventing the electronic spreadsheet, Dan Bricklin talks about the dawn of personal computing, why small software firms remain crucial, how technology aids community, and what people still don't get about Tablet PCs.

PC World: What's it like looking back at VisiCalc?

Dan Bricklin: Those were the days when we believed in the PC and the personal use of computing, and society hadn't accepted it yet. We were evangelizing it. We believed in something that did come about.

We've had anniversaries for VisiCalc throughout. It's nice that we're still remembering it 25 years later. One year later, they weren't remembering it.

PCW: Early stories about VisiCalc had a hard time describing it.

Bricklin: You can't describe some of these things. Until you're actually immersed in a certain technology and using it and seeing how the public uses it, you don't necessarily understand it. Some people don't understand why instant messaging has taken off so much among certain parts of the population. That was true for the spreadsheet, which seems so obvious now.

Plus you had to buy a computer to use it. VisiCalc was a $5000 purchase, if you included a good printer. But for many people it paid for itself in the first year, or in the first month.

PCW:What are the most important changes in the spreadsheet since then?

Bricklin: What has changed is that the presentation of the output has progressed quite a bit, opening up lots of new applications. The most interesting thing is that it hasn't changed much. The basic concept is the same: organizing rows and columns that reference each other, absolute and relative copy operations, and a grid that isn't dedicated for any particular purpose. You can lay things out as you see fit. Now, of course, it's taught in grade school, so people learn spreadsheeting and spreadsheet thinking from early on.

The thing that surprises me is that we haven't come up with a better calculating metaphor. [The market failure of Lotus] Improv to me was what sealed that. Improv was based on tables as objects in their own right, so you had to think down to the level of the object. But people aren't that organized in their thinking. And people like free-format tools.

PCW:Do you get a kick from seeing spreadsheets in use?

Bricklin:I love it. I still get letters. I responded today to a letter from somebody saying, "Thank you for putting food on my table." That makes me feel really good.

PCW:What do you use?

Bricklin:I use Excel if I have Office on the machine, otherwise Works if it's on the machine. I don't need that much of a spreadsheet. But at least once a year, I use it for something, and I'm happy it's there. I have a feeling that if I hadn't invented it back then, I would have invented it now, because I need it. That's the way I am. I've always viewed myself as a tool builder.

PCW:Earlier this year you left Interland, which had bought Trellix, your Web-authoring tool company. What's next?

Bricklin:I really missed writing code and having product out there, in whatever area I felt like. Plus, I like small business. So I'm back at Software Garden again. I don't know what I'm going to be doing, but I want to start practicing a bit. And we've got to figure out business models that work. In today's world, open source has become very important, and it's very tricky.

I believe that the small software developer is an important part of our society. A lot of innovation comes from there. Ideas are tried that won't always be tried in a space that's funded by somebody else.

PCW:You've been a big proponent of pen computing. How's the Tablet PC looking?

Bricklin:Tablet PCs are too heavy for some uses, they don't have the [optimal screen] resolution, and there are a lot of other technical issues. But they're getting there. And for some people, they are there.

It's good that Microsoft is pushing the tablet forward; it opens up a new form factor. With [Wi-Fi] and the Internet, we're frequently just choosing and clicking, and the pen is wonderful for that. I can sit here reading with my tablet. I don't even necessarily use the pen; I use the arrow buttons on the machine.

The pen isn't about handwriting recognition. That's completely wrong. That's like taking a sound card and viewing the sound card by how well it does voice recognition--rather than the fact that I can now do voice over IP, and rip MP3s and play back MP3s, and do learning at a distance with Flash movies, and view streaming video with audio.

PCW:What do you see happening with smart phones?

Bricklin:Mobile's really important. I've got my Treo, and I've been singing the praises of things like that for some time.

We were in New York this weekend, and we were walking around in the city. And you don't see that many people listening to music players. It used to be that they all had Walkmans, but now they're talking on cell phones. That cuts across all economic areas. All the laborers have cell phones. The cop on the beat is talking to a loved one while he's directing traffic. The cab driver is on the phone all the time.

I'm interested in how that has gotten into your life. You can't operate that well in today's society without a cell phone.

With unlimited plans for cell phones, you don't think twice about talking to people anywhere, and it makes it much easier to keep up relationships at a distance. E-mail makes it much easier to keep up relationships at a distance, and more of them.

I think that community is coming back. With the Web, blogs, e-mail, and cell phones, we're seeing a resurgence in community. Technology is now something for bringing people together. And mobile is a big piece of that, because we're mobile. Getting e-mail on your cell phone is a real help now. Text messaging, which is mobile IM, is becoming really important around the world.

People need community and we find ways of using tools in a community way. When the telephone came in, the telephone company told you that it was wrong to use it for non-business purposes. But society took it where people wanted it to go. The farm wife needed to talk. You got the phone so you could call the doctor, but you'd also use it to be less isolated. And we're using technology again that way.

It's also interesting that connectivity has moved to do-it-myself. The success of Wi-Fi, the big success, is in the home and office. You go into all these homes and you see these little antennas and the lights flashing. They've sold incredible numbers lately. And that's all do-it-yourself.

PCW:Just like the start of the Web?

Bricklin:The Web was do-it-yourself. People found out that you just have to learn a little HTML, which for a certain segment of the population was not that hard. And that was sufficient to produce an immense amount of material.

When you put your first page up on the Web, that feeling of personal freedom, of accomplishment and ability and potential, is an incredible feeling.

That's what built us the Web. Then you put Google on top of it, which mines it to give us all access to all these things that everybody did. It's really cool.

So there's this distributed do-it-yourself aspect that is very, very important. We keep forgetting about it and we keep thinking that everything is all centralized in places like Hollywood and New York, which really should not be the case.

Bricklin has posted more of his memories, and a History of VisiCalc, on his Web site.

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