Dan Bricklin interview

Dan Bricklin is best known for creating VisiCalc along with Bob Frankston in 1979. Since that time he has been active as a software developer and entrepreneur. His new book is Bricklin on Technology (ISBN 0470402377).

I quoted Dan Bricklin in a blog post a few weeks ago and he left a couple comments in the discussion. This started an email correspondence that lead to the following interview.

JC: Do you ever feel that the fame of VisiCalc has overshadowed some of your more recent accomplishments?

DB: It had better. VisiCalc was a pretty big thing to have done, and I’m very happy that I had the opportunity to make such a big contribution to the world. On the other hand, I frequently run into people who remember me because of some of my other products, especially Dan Bricklin’s Demo, or my writings that had a major impact on their work, so I know it’s not all that I’ve done of interest. Having done VisiCalc has opened many doors for me, and I surely appreciate that. I wouldn’t call it overshadowed, I’d call it added to and enhanced.

JC: What would your 30-second bio be without VisiCalc?

DB: I am a long-term toolmaker and commentator in the area of the personal use of computing power. I’ve stayed current in the technology area, and continually programmed and developed products in the latest genre, and shared my observations through blogging, podcasting, and other means, including a book.

JC: What are you doing these days as a programmer? As an entrepreneur?

DB: I have been working on an Open Source JavaScript-based spreadsheet called SocialCalc. It is being used throughout the world on the One Laptop Per Child’s XO computer, as well as by enterprise social-software company Socialtext, which paid for much of its development. I also serve on a few high-tech boards, and do a variety of types of consulting, including speaking engagements. I plan to continue developing software of various sorts and consulting.

JC: What trends do you see in software development?

DB: Software development is pervading more and more fields as a major component. We have moved from the computer being an adjunct to other means of expression or deployment to being the only or dominant means. The use of major system components, be they libraries or services, has continued to grow.

JC: Every time a new technology comes out, someone asks what the killer app will. That is, what application will do for the new technology what VisiCalc did for personal computers. Could you comment on some other “killer apps” since VisiCalc?

DB: I viewed VisiCalc as an app that made buying it and the whole system needed to run it an extremely simple decision. I saw it as having a “two week payback” for buying the whole system. That came from being two orders of magnitude better than what was used before. In VisiCalc’s case, you could use paper and pencil, taking at least 100 times as long to do the same thing, or, in those days, a timesharing system at a few thousand dollars a month (at least).

Similarly compelling applications since VisiCalc (for businesses) were desktop publishing, email, and mobile computing (like the Blackberry, Treo, and now iPhone). For the home, initially CD-ROM encyclopedias were a pretty compelling reason for homes with children to buy a PC (less than the cost of a paper encyclopedia and a bookcase to hold it but you could also use it for word processing), then the combination of email and the web with an always-connected Internet connection.

JC: The personal computer had a killer app and became popular. Are we reading too much into history by expecting that every technology must have a killer app before it can take off?

DB: You only need something that justifies buying a whole system if the sum of other applications or other reasons don’t cause the purchase on their own. For the iPhone, for some people, just having a large catalog of things you might want (those long tail apps I discuss in Chapter 7 of my book) may be enough.

JC: What do you think of open source business models? Ad sponsored, freemium, selling support/consulting services, etc.

DB: As I point out in Chapter 2 of my book where I talk about artists getting paid, there are many ways to make money. A “business model” is just saying here is how the pieces of what I do fit together and end up making enough money to meet the needs I have. This includes the cost structure as well as the sources of revenue and desired results. All long term endeavors, be they mainly based on developing or using Open Source or proprietary source or a mixture, look to different mixtures. They have historically used selling support, relationships with other companies (which advertising is a variant of), and other techniques as part of their mix. Open Source just gives us other options, including on the cost side. Also, as Prof. Ariely explains in the interview I did with him (Chapter 5) once you move into the realm of “free”, and when you appropriately invoke “community”, both of which Open Source can do, you get added benefits in your relationship with other people that can leverage your marketing and other costs.

JC: What did you learn in the process of writing your book? In particular, could you say a little bit about typography?

DB: Most of what I went through is in my essay on the topic, Turning My Blog Into A Book. I think that typography is important, and we’ve seen that as web pages have moved from very basic to better layout to full use of CSS. Typography is a way of expressing ideas and information outside of the direct flow of what you are saying. It is very valuable. Just as a well-delivered speech can convey much more than just the raw words, appropriate use of typographical techniques can convey much more than simple text.

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