Spreadsheet Inventor Dan Bricklin on a Life in Computing

Born as American TV viewers first saw a computer, Dan Bricklin co-invented the spreadsheet and remains awed by tech

If you use spreadsheets — and today the number of users that do so must be in the hundreds of millions — then every time you open a new workbook, edit a cell or calculate a formula, you can thank Dan Bricklin’s legacy. Bricklin, an MIT graduate and Harvard MBA, developed VisiCalc with Bob Frankston back in 1979. The program not only gave rise to many of the elements of modern spreadsheet programs, selling over a million copies along the way, but, after its 1981 port, also helped the IBM Personal Computer become one of the most important new products of the 20th century.

Recently I spoke to Bricklin by phone about VisiCalc, its legacy, the rise of the PC generation and what’s happened since.

First, I asked him to sketch a picture of financial management as it was when he wrote the code for what would become VisiCalc.

“For hundreds of years, financial stuff was done on pen and paper and frequently on columns and rows with labels around them. [In the 1970s] we’d be doing it on paper or typing up things. That’s how you kept your books. When they talked about book-keeping, it was exactly that: there were pages in books. Our first name for VisiCalc was Calcu-ledger because that helped explain what we were doing: providing calculations for general ledger.”

Although the spreadsheet made his name, Bricklin had been largely concentrating on another software category that was to change the way the world worked.

“My background was in word processing but, back then, computerised printing of letters was mostly used in things like fundraising where you’d print one letter hundreds of times. The idea of using that equipment for a plain old letter by a typist… they were just too expensive. The idea of a screen-based word processor was a new thing when I was working in the Seventies at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) but I had been exposed to systems like [drawing program] Sketchpad which were interactive programs that had started to become popular in the Sixties and Seventies in research institutions. Computers were becoming important in newspapers so a reporter could type something in and see what it would look like but [for the majority of people] the idea of using a computer to do these things was new.”

When Bricklin prototyped VisiCalc, he showed it to his Harvard professor who told him that his competition was calculating on the back of an envelope; if VisiCalc wasn’t faster, people would never use it. That notion helped make Bricklin a pioneer in another way: delivering a user experience (even before the term had been coined) that was intuitive so a new computer user would understand the new electronic tools. So, VisiCalc looked like a ledger book. Similarly, in word processing, manual tools like scissors and glue became ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ features. Add in extra automation capabilities such as having words automatically wrap around lines of text and you had something that was revolutionary, in the days before even Wang and WordStar automated office tasks.

But at the time, computers were rare, pricey and lacking a standard.

“A person being able to buy a computer in a Radio Shack store was a new thing in the Seventies. The only connection most people had to a computer was using automated teller machines. Timesharing with a terminal where you all shared this remote computer was being developed in the Sixties and started to become popular in the Seventies. People were starting to do financial forecasting but that would cost thousands of dollars a month, plus you’d need terminals. For sizeable companies doing MRP [manufacturing resource planning] that was reasonable, but it would cost $5,000 to $10,000 each for a word processing system of letter quality.”

That pioneer environment explains why Bricklin had no great expectations for commercial success with VisiCalc but he was driven by an idea.

“I came from the word processing world and in this What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get world I’d seen a mouse and was familiar with interactive systems. I think it’d seen an Alto [early Xerox computer], played Space War [a game for the DEC PDP-1], seen Sketchpad, knew APL and Basic. The idea of having what we did with words and numbers on paper but with computation seemed pretty obvious; if there was a ‘eureka’ moment, that was it.

“But I was in word processing and did word processing take off like crazy? No. Was it on every desk? No. Today, people hardly know how to write [in longhand] but in those days the idea that computers would be cheap enough... We knew what should be but we also knew from hindsight that acceptance was very slow. I had seen the mouse in the 1970s, it was invented before that and didn’t come into acceptance until the 80s. So although we had something we saw was wonderful, we had no expectations.”

With the benefit of hindsight though, grass shoots and signs were discernible.

“There were people making money out of software. [Mainframe database maker] Cullinane was the first pre-packaged software company to go public so we knew it was possible. But on the PC there were no [commercial] models. Almost nobody knew who Bill Gates was and he was maybe making a few million dollars a year.”

Also, the economics of the day were very different as an Apple II “fully loaded” with daisywheel printer and screen cost about $5,000, the equivalent of about $18,000 today.

This was also a time of scepticism about personal computing with the leading IT suppliers considering it a fad for hobbyists rather than a big opportunity to sell to business users. This attitude was underlined when Bricklin says he considered putting VisiCalc on DEC’s PDP-11 microcomputer before deciding on the Apple II.

“I was thinking about it but the sales person wasn’t very aggressive. It was classical Innovator’s Dilemma. [DEC CEO] Ken Olsen saw PCs as wheelbarrows when he was selling pickup trucks.”

That sort of attitude was unlikely to change Bricklin’s desire to set up his own company with Frankston rather than market his idea to the computing giants of the time.

“I wanted to start a business and be an entrepreneur,” he recalls. “I had taken a few classes at Harvard; there weren’t many in those days but I took those that were on offer.”

Although VisiCalc is sometimes presented as a smash hit that immediately launched the IBM PC, that notion is wrong on three points. VisiCalc was released on the Apple II in 1979, there were other ports before it was made available on the IBM PC, and the initial reaction from the wider world was lukewarm.

“When it first came out, almost nobody but a few people in the computer press wrote about it. There was a humorous article about the National Computer Conference [scene of the VisiCalc launch] in the New York Times where the VisiCalc name was considered funny and the author was making fun of all the computer terms. It then appeared in an announcement about my wedding in the Fall and my father-in-law was able to put some wording in about me being the creator of VisiCalc…

“We had ‘serious volume’ of 1,000 units per month for the first year. That’s nothing, that’s how many copies of a program are downloaded onto iPads every day, or every minute.”

But by comparison to other business software for the personal computer, VisiCalc was a success and the most clued-in sales people at resellers used it to show what personal computers could do.

“They knew that by demonstrating VisiCalc they could sell a PC… it was a killer app. People at HP got it too. One of my classmates at business school worked there and was making a small desktop computer that ran Basic and his boss put VisiCalc on that. Tandy started advertising about VisiCalc and sales started doing a lot better. By the time the IBM PC came out it was understood that it was a good thing and people in the business press started to say ‘can it run VisiCalc?’”

If the laurels are to Bricklin and Frankston for creating the modern spreadsheet from the confluence of the rise in microcomputers, business interest and new software development languages, it was another program and company that cashed in on the full flowering of those trends.

“When Lotus 1-2-3 came out [in 1983], the moon and stars were aligned for [Lotus founder and Bricklin’s friend] Mitch Kapor [to be successful] just as they had been for me to create VisiCalc,” says Bricklin, who adds that he knew the better program when he saw it.

Turn another corner and things could have been different though. Microsoft’s dominance of PC software could have been even greater had it been smarter with its Multiplan product, Bricklin believes.

Had Bricklin been more aggressive and the laws of the day been different, he could have pursued Lotus through the courts for the many features that arguably were derived from VisiCalc.

“The law in the US was that you couldn’t patent software and the chances were one in ten you could try to sneak it through and call it a system,” he recalls.

In truth, Bricklin would make an unlikely litigant and says he never considered such a path. He is proud, rather, that his legacy still looms large, even if he didn’t make the millions that others did. The tech investor Ben Rosen called VisiCalc “the software tail that wags (and sells) the personal computer dog” and there’s no doubt that it played a big part in what happened later to our digitising universe.

While some pioneers skulk and criticise others that followed them and were successful, Bricklin appears to have no trace of bitterness. He remains a staunch fan of Microsoft and Excel, a product that remains a cash machine and still bears the stamp of VisiCalc, 35 years on.

“Doing VisiCalc, I had to come up with the essence of what you need in 32K of RAM and our notion of what was important was correct, it turned out,” he says.

But the power and richness of Excel are remarkable, he says, rejecting the notion that the Redmond company is guilty of creating bloatware.

“Microsoft came from engineers building things: programmers, programmers, programmers — and the hearts and minds of programmers mattered a lot to them. People want to customise things, make it right for what their problem is. It’s the difference between being a carpenter and being an architect — one size does not fit all.

“Microsoft built systems that could be customised, so users could replace that part themselves and it listened to a lot of people and provided what they wanted, all the bells and whistles. People say you end up with bloatware and only 10% of the features get used by any user but that 10% is different for a lot of users. Apple went for smaller number of people and that’s OK because there’s Microsoft for the rest. [Microsoft] had business practices that people didn’t like but is that different than other companies in other industries? Not necessarily.

“As a child of the Sixties I think of Bob Dylan: ‘the loser now will be later to win’. It goes in cycles. The founder of Intel [Andrew Grove] said it: Only the Paranoid Survive and you only have so much time [at the top].”

If Bricklin was before his time with VisiCalc, he was also early onto new trends in user input, creating pen-operated applications at Slate Corporation in the early 1990s and in 2009, a Note Taker app for the “magical” iPad he so admires.

“I decided I wanted to get into that [iOS] world because there were times when I wanted to get something down and if I write 5 and it’s a bit off, that’s OK. But if I did that on a keyboard and it’s a 6, that’s no good for a telephone number. I got to learn what’s it’s like, that world of app stores and so on, and I did all the support so I got to see what people needed.”

That took him to the latest stage of his journey, as CTO for a company specialising in using HTML5 to make software multiplatform.

“I saw businesses were going to replace clipboards with tablets and that’s why I decided to join Alpha Software. I couldn’t do everything on my own because there’s so much at the back end you need to do but I wanted to innovate at the front end. Being able to customise is something that’s exciting to watch but it takes time. You’d think that in companies with billions of dollars, why would people be carrying around procedure manuals instead of on a digital reader? But they do. [Automating cross-platform capabilities] is extremely important in business. You’d think that most companies would have started taking great advantage of custom mobile opportunities internally, but most haven’t gotten there yet.”  

Bricklin remains awestruck by changes he has seen in a lifetime of computing that has made him a sort of smarter Forrest Gump or Zelig for the binary age — a person who was around at some of the biggest the zeitgeist moments in computing history.

“When I was working in word processing in my early twenties, I was doing programming for a person who worked for Jay Forrester and the year I was born as it turned out, Forrester showed the Whirlwind computer on TV and that was the first time the general public got to see a computer in action, in this video from 1951 [YouTube clip here]. Bricklin’s boss stayed up for days making sure it was ready for demo and you can see him there in the background [starting at 4.01]. Those were computers that were the size of big rooms and I was working with him on something you could fit in a desk. And now it’s in the pocket and on a watch soon. This is a progression I’ve seen my whole life and it’s a joy each time.”

Bricklin seems content to be recognised as a founding father of the segment, rather than a Rockerfeller.

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