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Software pioneer keeps on innovating

The biggest reason Dan Bricklin, 54, will forever be considered an unqualified success as a programmer is also the reason people have high expectations for his current endeavor, in online spreadsheets: Bricklin is the guy who gave us the spreadsheet program.
Dan Bricklin
Dan Bricklin, inventor of the personal computer spreadsheet, stands with a laptop computer in his Newton, Mass., home.Steven Senne / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A lot of people are eager to see Dan Bricklin's latest product. It's a new piece of software, which means there are features to program and bugs to work out. This isn't an easy task, especially when you work alone, as he does.

And yet, sitting on a bench overlooking a lake at the end of his suburban street one fine spring day, Bricklin can afford some moments of reflection.

"When I turned 40 — and now 50 —I never had to worry about whether I'd amount to much," he says. "The pressure is off to make something of your life."

The biggest reason Dan Bricklin, 54, will forever be considered an unqualified success as a programmer is also the reason people have high expectations for his current endeavor, in online spreadsheets: Bricklin is the guy who gave us the spreadsheet program.

This is not mere geek trivia. Before 1979, when Bricklin released the first spreadsheet, known as VisiCalc, personal computers still mainly were programming toys for hobbyists.

VisiCalc changed that. By allowing businesses and households to automate their financial management — in a layout of their own choosing, even if they had zero programming ability —Bricklin ushered the era in which personal computers would burrow deep into our everyday lives.

He also helped shape the course of history. With VisiCalc as perhaps the first true "killer app," the seminal Apple II computer began selling well enough to awaken IBM Corp., which decided to enter the PC market. IBM tapped a scrappy Microsoft Corp. to provide the operating system, the decision that would turn Bill Gates into ... well, Bill Gates.

Nowhere near those kind of riches flowed to Bricklin and his co-developer, Bob Frankston, who did most of the programming.

Software often wasn't patented in those days, and Bricklin didn't pursue one for VisiCalc. Before long, Bricklin saw his idea taken up by such programs as Lotus Development Corp.'s 1-2-3 and Microsoft's Excel. In 1985, Bricklin and Frankston sold their company to Lotus, which ceased publishing VisiCalc.

Ultimately Bricklin made a living on speaking and consulting gigs and less famous creations, such as Demo, a program that let people assemble slide-like simulations of other pieces of software. More recently he has been an avid blogger and podcaster.

"Mr. Spreadsheet" still sets the bar
Even so, Bricklin will always be known as Mr. Spreadsheet, for better or worse. Which is why many people are watching closely as he updates the concept for the Web's new era.

Many of the solitary aspects of computing — think of one person at a terminal, reading something or creating something, then perhaps sending it off to someone else — are giving way to a new ideal. Groups of people are enhancing their productivity through collaborative programs known as wikis, in which multiple people can contribute at once. That's what puts the "wiki" in the peer-to-peer encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Wikis "are fulfilling the long-term promise of the Web by allowing people to engage in two-way conversation," says Joe Kraus, founder of wiki provider JotSpot Inc. "It's enabling people to publish as easily as they can read." Because of wikis' flexibility, JotSpot has seen its programs adopted in such diverse settings as a movie production team, class reunion planning and 2,500 families seeking to stay organized.

Bricklin's new project is a collaborative spreadsheet program — wikiCalc. He released a rough "alpha" version last fall and is now wrapping up a "beta" test version.

Its functions — letting users place data in rows and columns and create formulas to make sense of the information — will be familiar. But its wiki nature will bring new twists.

Rather than my adding data to it, saving it, and then e-mailing it so you can add your own figures, we could both work off the same document in real time. Running on a server like other online services, the wiki spreadsheet could be told to go onto the Web and dynamically update certain information, such as changing stock prices or census data.

"I think it's very powerful," says Rod Smith, who oversees emerging technology in IBM Corp.'s software group and is pushing a service to help customers combine business information in wiki-like modules. He says he admires how Bricklin is prodding his signature creation to make it better. "If anybody can, Dan can," Smith says.

But it's unlikely that wikiCalc will bring Bricklin untold spreadsheet millions at long last. The project is open source — its underlying code is open to other tinkerers and the software itself will be free. Businesses would pay for help in integrating or customizing the program.

"If this is successful, I'll show that a small-business person can go into open source and make a living on it," Bricklin says. "Somehow money seems to show up for open source."

To that end, Bricklin has reached a deal in which Socialtext Inc., a maker of wikis for businesses, will distribute a commercial version of the program and host it on its servers.

Stiff competition
WikiCalc will not be free of competition. Excel itself and some Web-based spreadsheets have collaborative functions. Google Inc. just announced an online spreadsheet application.

But Bricklin believes a key ingredient will set his program apart. To grasp what it is, you have to understand that while Bricklin's thick beard and hair are almost all gray now, in some ways he hasn't changed very much since 1979.

Back then, Bricklin wasn't interested in merely creating a tool for business forecasting. The son and grandson of printers, he also was occupied with principles of layout and design, and freeing people to arrange information on the screen as they saw fit.

For a sense of how deeply he thinks about this concept, consider this sentence that he earnestly drops into conversation while having hot chocolate in a cafe near his house: "Most people like that paper has two dimensions."

That may sound arcane, but clearly, he was on to something: To this day, the ultimate VisiCalc copycat, Excel, is widely used as an all-purpose presentation engine, even for soccer schedules and other data that require no calculations.

Ensuring that wikiCalc reflects that freeform ideal — rather than just offering a way for multiple people to crunch numbers together — has been hugely important for Bricklin.

Ultimately, wikiCalc could provide an intriguing epilogue to VisiCalc because this notion that computers can help people better collaborate from afar is one of the earliest visions in the industry. It was powerfully described by Doug Engelbart and other pioneers 40 years ago, but became somewhat secondary in the emergence of the "personal" computer _ the machine Bricklin did so much to popularize.

"I think he's cued into some of the models of how you let people work together," Socialtext founder Ross Mayfield says of Bricklin. "Which nothing out of the PC generation of tools is able to do."