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Interview With Spreadsheet Creator 135

Gammu writes "Dan Bricklin helped create one of the most successful computer metaphors of all time, and he never got rich. He, and another engineer, started Personal Software to create the computer spreadsheet VisiCalc, which established the Apple II as the standard microcomputer for small businesses and attracted the attention of IBM to the market. Josh Coventry recently interviewed Bricklin about VisiCalc and his newer projects, including a Wiki-style spreadsheet." WikiCalc was discussed back in February on Slashdot and reviewed by NewsForge in March. NewsForge and Slashdot are both owned by OSTG.
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Interview With Spreadsheet Creator

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  • by phantomcircuit ( 938963 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @11:33PM (#16833424) Homepage
    he didn't get rich from such a famous piece of industry starting software?

    lets give him a dollar
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:21AM (#16833768)
      People who have talent don't get rich.

      People who organize talent get rich.

      Since most of us on slashdot are havers, rather than organizers, we sense this as some sort of deep injustice, or dark irony. But really it's just a practical necessity. The organizers are the ones with the power to determine who gets paid what, so they naturally pay themselves the most. If you want that money, then become an organizer instead.

      • by maynard ( 3337 )

        Someone mark that ++,Funny!


        • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @01:05AM (#16833974)
          Why so funny? Take a look at Steve Wozniak (talent guy) and Steve Jobs (organize guy). Which one has the most money?
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            Equally as important: Which one is doing good things with his time and money?

            The Great Woz is teaching. Jobs is selling lousy music players and laptops with exploding batteries.

            +1, Woz.
            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by flydpnkrtn ( 114575 )
              LOL I've got 2 mod points left... wish I could mod the Woz +1 insightful.

              The Woz is/was leet. I mean, who "goes away for a month" and creates the predecessor to USB. []

              Who does that?

              The Woz does that.
            • by BVis ( 267028 )

              Which one is doing good things with his time and money?

              Define "good things". For lots of people, "good things" are "pushing around people who don't have as much money". Most people look at people like Woz and shake their heads sadly; to their eyes he's pissed away so much money on things that won't make him more money.

              We've become a society where what you have is a lot more important than what you do. If you have lots of stuff and/or money, you can basically get away with anything (see: OJ Simpson, Mic

          • Uh, Woz pissed away quite a bit of money. He WAS insanely rich. Look at all the engineers that are well loaded. Some from the not so distant past. A couple of guys named Larry and Sergey come to mind...
          • by maynard ( 3337 )
            What's really funny is that I had planned to post that AC and instead clicked No Karma Bonus. D'OH!
          • How many solid gold toilets can you crap into at once?

            I think Jobs believes his own bull shit. Which is a terrible fate. That way lies madness.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by paulthomas ( 685756 )
        Cowardly and bitter. The people who get rich are the talented people with vision and an understanding of their own self-worth.

        Certainly the talent for organization plays into this, but that doesn't preclude other talents.
        • The people who get rich are the talented people with vision and an understanding of their own self-worth.

          ... and a desire to measure that self-worth in dollars. That includes most people, but not everybody. Think of all the very bright people who get PhDs and end up in little tiny nowhere towns in Georgia because they'd rather make peanuts at an academic job in BFE than live comfortably in a happening place and work in marketing.

      • People who have talent don't get rich.

        People who organize talent get rich.

        Is organization not a talent?

        People skills aren't easy to master.
        • by lvirden ( 6151 )
          For some people, organization may be a talent (that is, something that they are born able to do well), but for many, it is a skill (something that they've gained proficiency over by training and experience).

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by njdj ( 458173 )

          Is organization not a talent? People skills aren't easy to master.

          No, it's not; and yes, they are. I was a software developer, and became a manager. I was seen as a very good manager. I found the job pretty boring - I could do the work in about 20 hours/week (after all, the key skill is delegating as much as possible). In the end, I went back to software development, mainly because I found it more satisfying.

          Of course I could have got a lot more money by working my way up the hierarchy, but not having

      • [i]People who have talent don't get rich.[/i] Excluding movie stars, major league athletes, and Oprah.
      • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        I used the original VisiCalc heavily in my one College Economics class (yes, ECON 101). Here's the only thing I remember from that class:

        Wealth isn't a function of work, talent, or organization.

        Wealth is a function of RISK. In other words, if you take the biggest risk, you get the biggest payout.

        Employees get paid in arrears for the work they did. The boss doesn't get paid until the work produces a profit, and even then he's the last to get paid. Worker : paid for what they did. Boss: paid for what th
        • That only applies to wealth made purely through investment.

          In either case (welth through investment or entrepremeurship) it is an advantage to start with more wealth: part of the advantage Bill Gates had over Bricklin and others is that he inherited a few million, so he had something to fall back on if the risky startup failed.
    • by SCHecklerX ( 229973 ) <> on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:48AM (#16833884) Homepage
      Imagine if patenting software was the thing back then.
  • check out Numbler (Score:5, Interesting)

    by harshaw ( 3140 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @11:37PM (#16833458)
    The source and engine are also available for Numbler, a collaborate spreadsheet similar to google spreadsheet.

    you can get the source and play with it at []. We haven't made a formal announcement of this yet so the docs are still quite raw.
  • by bigberk ( 547360 ) <> on Monday November 13, 2006 @11:46PM (#16833530)
    I loved this... his web site includes a downloadable VisiCalc binary [] from 1981. It's 27 KB large (smaller than most web images, he points out) and it's a pretty powerful piece of software. Still runs on my modern dual core system, talk about longevity. Wow. All the Flash and Visual Basic in the world can't make me forget how awesome and elegant some older software is. I started out by writing in assembler myself
    • by Blakey Rat ( 99501 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:32AM (#16833816)
      Not to diminish your post, but from my understanding Visicalc is one of the applications Microsoft uses as a baseline for backwards-compatibility testing. The fact that it still runs in 2006 is more a testament to the efforts of OS designers than the original program-- the original program only had to follow all the published specs of the time.
      • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @01:08AM (#16833990)
        What, 25 years of backwards compatibility only counts as cool if it's on accident? I agree a lot of credit goes to Microsoft, but also to the engineers at Intel and AMD for keeping the zombie that is x86 on its feet all those years - and outperforming everything else to boot. Legacy is a heavy burden to carry; they say Longhorn almost crushed Microsoft. But that also means that the very few companies with enough grunt to pull it off have a big competitive advantage. 25 years of Microsoft and Intel, I don't know whether to admire or resent it.
        • The marketplace. The reason for x86 compatibility is that consumers don't want to trade in old software. Even OS/2 had a dos box (called the Penalty Box by those who tried to use it). x86 compatibility held back 32 bit computing for a decade.
      • by bigberk ( 547360 ) <> on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @01:15AM (#16834026)
        Could that be true? I don't know either way. However as someone with extensive DOS assembler experience, I can say that the API calls (DOS int 0x21 and BIOS routines) that Visicalc used are very limited. This version ran on DOS 1.0 so we know it didn't even use any fancy memory management routines. The only potential for incompatibility that I see are the BIOS keyboard/video calls.

        DOS emulators have to deal with far more complicated DOS applications than this one. It uses basic OS and BIOS calls, no fancy processor or hardware tricks ... in fact I think this would be a nice binary to reverse engineer and play with, very straightforward x86 assembler.
      • When I started reading “VisiCalc is one of the applications Microsoft uses as a baseline”, I immediately thought “well, that explains a lot.” You can imagine my let-down as I kept reading.

    • by cstec ( 521534 )
      27KB? Holy crap, what a pig! Considering a lot of the systems then maxed at 48K, that would be the equivlaent of an app using 562 MB on a 1 Gig system today.
    • It's 27 KB large (smaller than most web images, he points out) and it's a pretty powerful piece of software. Still runs on my modern dual core system, talk about longevity.

      That, ladies and gentleman, is part of the reason why Windows continues to dominate but also the reason why it's increasing lagging behind other operating systems in security, new features, etc. Backward compatibility is a good thing to a certain extent but I think it's become to large a weight around Microsoft's neck. Five years for

      • by laffer1 ( 701823 )
        And that is why Microsoft bought Virtual PC. Microsoft can eventually use virtualization for backward compatibility and make the underlying OS secure and reliable without all the crap. The real question is will they follow through.
  • What? A techie guy with no business sense? Unheard of...
  • Never got rich (Score:3, Insightful)

    by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @11:48PM (#16833538)
    I only wish good ideas and good engineering had more to do with making a fortune than they do. Don't get me wrong, it does happen, and perhaps more in the US than anywhere else. But still, most of the money normally goes to whoever already has enough money to advance the innovator a paycheck so they can develop the idea. (Of course engineering wage slavery still beats pushing a plow 9 times out of 10!)
    • Those who put up the money. They generally get the rewards. If you are able to get financial backing and are smart and things break your way, you should get rewards to. But if I do amazing things for my company, we already have an arrangement. They get my labor for a salary.

      That's a long way around the barn to say: reward comes with risk.
  • I really think this addresses a growing need, particularly amongst corporate intranet users. We use a Wiki (MediaWiki) internally at work, and there are so many times that we need to create a simple editable spreadsheet to display calculations on a web page. Right now we either use static tables or attach an Excel document (I tried Google Spreadsheets but didn't like the results for our needs). This is fine, but creates formula messes when people want to make changes. WikiCalc appears to solve our need,
  • by Spiked_Three ( 626260 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:12AM (#16833700)
    I'm not exactly sure how they came to that conclusion. I worked in one of the first retail home computer software stores and we had tons of customers come in and say "I need/want Visicalc. What computer should I buy?" An apple II was seldome the recomendation. We sold Atari 400/800s, apples, commodore pets and I think most of the time we recommended a TRS-80 if their needs was strictly business with Visicalc.

    And we sold a ton of Visicalcs. If Dan couldn't get rich it is because he spent the profits poorley. Not because they were not there.
    • by icensnow ( 932196 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @08:11AM (#16836230)
      Maybe in a home computer store you were selling more cheaper ones. (By current standards, corrected for inflation, all these were extremely expensive.) I did a lot of temp jobs in banks during the immediate pre-IBM-PC era, and the only personal computers I ever saw were Apple II. They were usually controlled by ubergeek types (before the term was invented) when most people who had computer access had terminals to the IBM mainframes. These people had the knowledge that Visicalc would help them and the clout to get someone to pay for the computer, and the same logic about familiarity and price that led to rooms full of IBM-brand equipment would lead to buying Apple for PCs at that time. Just one person's sample, but I did work a lot of different locations over several summers.
  • by NotQuiteReal ( 608241 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:16AM (#16833734) Journal
    But remember, marketing (and sales) pay the bills.

    Sure, engineering "innovation" is cool, but engineers are built so that once the "that's cool" flag is set, it is soon forgotten in the zen of the implementation.

    Sales and marketing guys who couldn't program "hello world", jump all over the cool idea with branding, marketing, patents, and "market differentiation" and turn it into actual money.

    If you are an engineer with new ideas, it would not be a bad idea to align yourself with the "dark forces", if you care about making money from your work.

    I, for one, do not begrudge our road-warrior, platinum mile club, twice-divorced sales wonk his high salary, he earns it too.

    disclaimer: I am not a sales or marketing type. I see that they often earn more than I, but am old enough to appreciate why.

    • by QuantumG ( 50515 )
      Not that a spreadsheet was a new idea when he wrote Visicalc, or for like, hundreds of years before that. Shit, he wasn't even the first guy to make a computer spreadsheet. There was even a patent awarded in 1970 for computer spreadsheets.

      thanks wikipedia []

    • I absolutely agree with you.

      Engineers often forget that the main purpose of innovation in the international and (almost all) domestic markets is simply to make money.

      Money drives everything. For example without money your teleporter is useless as none will be built.

      Even non-profits need to design products that can make money, either through direct sales or products worthy of donations.

      Frankly an engineer that can design a perfect bridge but can't get it built is worse than one who can design a f
      • by sfjoe ( 470510 )
        Frankly an engineer that can design a perfect bridge but can't get it built is worse than one who can design a flawed bridge but can get it built.

        That depends on your point of view. The person standing on a bridge as it collapses would certainly disagree with you.

    • by TheLink ( 130905 )
      It shouldn't be surprising that the ones who can convince people to pay lots of money for some bug ridden crap programmers write, would be able to convince their bosses to pay them in return for it.

      Then there's also PR - that's when you outsource the bullshit, half-truths and outright lies, so that if _they_ screw up you can switch PR companies and hopefully keep your job.
  • by cstec ( 521534 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:33AM (#16833822)
    The original post is an Apple troll. The standard microcomputer for business from that time was the TRS-80, which was far more successful for business applications (and had a much bigger business application catalog accordingly.) Visicalc was released for both.
    • by mccalli ( 323026 )
      The original post is an Apple troll.

      ...and the parent post is a Tandy troll(!). The standard microcomputer for business at that time was the Commodore PET []. Hah, take that Tandy! :-)

  • Hi I worked as an intern on your second product after visi-calc, or at least they told me it was your companies second product. Why do you feel it wasn't as successful? It fills a neat gap between spreadheets and having to write code. Most people who write serious spreadsheets for financial or scientific purposes would actually be better off in a lot of cases using it instead. for those of you not in the know, its currently being developed by uts software [].
    • by kabz ( 770151 )
      There were a bunch of 'better mousetrap' products around the time that Lotus 1-2-3 was doing it's stuff. Among them was Tk_Solver!, but Microsoft came along with Excel which was great for adding up columns of numbers and making pretty pictures. Eventually they added pivot tables, but they never forgot the core market of people who just wanted to do real simple stuff. It's still pretty cool that Excel and Visual Basic runs on my Mac.

  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @01:38AM (#16834150) Homepage Journal
    I don't know why every desktop doesn't include a basic spreadsheet superclass, since it is so common in so many different kinds of apps. I'd expect by now that the OS would include a basic SQL storage/query engine, an app that hooks code and data objects to a 3D array, and a GUI for sheets. And a basic text editor. The original Mac was complete with those apps in 1984, even though only the patterns (not the code, certainly not the source) were available to every app. Over 20 years later, and users and developers still have to roll our own, and use inconsistent GUIs, interfaces, APIs, data models, and just plain redundant bloat.

    People like Bricklin who kicked off all this "personal computing" made a lot more changes in the right direction with a lot less technology, for even fewer people, than we've done in the generation since we inherited their vision.
    • by Tablizer ( 95088 )
      I don't know why every desktop doesn't include a basic spreadsheet superclass, since it is so common in so many different kinds of apps.

      Amen! One has to bend over backwards while chewing gum on rollerskates to get a decent editable grid widget in web apps. It is like being stuck in 1977 all over again. The web sent biz UI's back 30 years. I can build table-oriented apps in FoxPro in 2 hours what it takes 6 weeks to do in web apps.
    • Hummm,

      You can get close to this by installing OpenOffice Calc, MySQL, and hooking the two together. It's not as simple as to create an empty spreadsheet file, but it's doable even by the average user if you teach him.

      But, I don't think most users out there needs, or understands, the relational system that governs modern databases. Of course it would be nice to see OpenOffice as a nicely integrated frontent to MySQL (or Postgres, or Firebird, etc...).

      And on the closed source front... if people are willing to
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Doc Ruby ( 173196 )
        The point of including the basic superclasses in the OS is that every user, any program they use, gets the same, consistent interface (if the developers want to use it). This is not a question of whether office apps are available to users, but whether developers can rely on the same classes and interfaces, to reuse the same code and skills for the same use patterns across any apps.

        Users don't need to understand RDBMS or anything else. That's the job of the developers who reuse the OS office components.

        At th
    • Subclassable apis in the OS? BeOS had that. OS/2 sorta had that. See how well they did? Programmers suffer horribly from Not Invented Here syndrome unfortunately.
      • Those OS'es were a long time ago, and had other limits. Mainly just "not Linux". Now the "remix culture" has fully arrived, and Linux is the hothouse.

        There are several ways to subclass OS objects. One is by just wrapping the OS object in a container object with extra/override/overload method/properties. Classes implementing public handles to members let other apps replace members at will, even dynamically.

        Another strategy is to actually subclass the superclass at design time, recompiling the source code for
      • How about NeXTSTEP, now known as OS X? I'd say it is doing fairly well for a non-Windows OS. It's objects are subclassable, and really neat things can be done with ObjC Categories. Consider that the first web browsr was pretty much a subclass of the NSText class. Not-Invented-Here syndrome may be a problem, but I don't think that is a major limiting factor for the platform.
  • I worked at a plumbing supply house about 10yrs ago. My boss would still use his Apple II and Visicalc for doing the pricing book sheets. He had newer machines but for some reason just kept using it. I recall thinking how odd that it was the original spreadsheet software.
    • I believe Visicalc was predated by spreadsheet software for the IBM System/34, called Insight. It was developed by the eponymous software company of Lower Leeson Street, Dublin, Ireland, later to be bought out by Hoskyns and then by Cap Gemini. They were my first employer out of college in 1986.
  • by geobeck ( 924637 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @01:59AM (#16834306) Homepage

    From the license agreement page that everyone reads (I'm sure) before downloading it:

    If you acquire this Program as a program upgrade, your authorization to use the Program from which you upgraded is terminated.

    Onoes! You mean if I install this program I can no longer use my... um... paper ledger? (Really, what else would I have upgraded from?)

  • Real Men used Paperclip
  • ...and the GUI, developed at Xerox's PARC, I believe. I read somewhere that Jobs was 'inspired' by seeing these there at a visit he paid once, used it in his products and the rest is history. Was the researcher who developed them paid and credited for this? I can imagine it must have taken a lot of work (creative and otherwise) to have come up with such out-of-the-box concepts at the time...what a way to go.
    • Yes, Apple paid Xerox for the rights to commercialize anything they saw on the famous PARC visit. The GUI is the one thing Apple noticed.

      Apple put a lot of their own work into the GUI as well. Menus that pull-down from a header were an Apple invention. Apple thought they saw overlapping windows at PARC (but didn't) and then built overlapping windows into LISA and Macintosh.
    • Jef Raskin was one of the Xerox PARC people behind the GUI, which he claimed started with his thesis "The Quick-Draw Graphics System." Many of the GUI concepts were in that thesis, I believe (haven't come across a copy yet).

      Raskin was hired on with Apple, and kicked off the Macintosh project. After a little while, Jobs took over the project and steered it in a different direction.

      It's probably worth casting an eye over this page ( or the Wikipedia article if
  • If you're interested, Dan Bricklin was interviewed on NerdTV [] back in November of 2005. See episode #10.

Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan