Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading Dan Bricklin on Technology

I’ve been fascinated by a new book, Bricklin on Technology. I’m not the only one. The omnipresent Scott Kirsner tweeted that reading this book “is like downloading a few gigs of Dan directly to your cerebral cortex.”

Rather than concentrate on one review, I think I will work some of his thoughts into a number of posts, this one stressing the importance of Apps for the PC and the Smart Phone. Then again, perhaps these are my thoughts, but he provoked them.

VisiCalc, introduced thirty years ago this month at the1979 West Coast Computer Faire by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, went on from there to change forever the computer industry. For the arrivistes among us, VisiCalc was the world’s first spreadsheet, progenitor of today’s Excel and many programs in between.

Personal Computers were available in 1979 (though not the IBM PC), but, before VisiCalc, there was no compelling reason to buy one. VisiCalc’s ability to update rows and columns in real time not only gave the user a way to revise financial statements but provided a superior solution to that offered by alternatives such as mainframe-based time sharing systems. Typically, a mainframe would have to upload an entire screen from a remote terminal, perform the update, and then rewrite the entire screen, far less timely and user friendly than VisiCalc on the Apple II.

Moreover, VisiCalc was a tool that could be adapted to many purposes, such as developing a complete financial model of a business. And, as a business tool, the purchaser could likely deduct the cost of VisiCalc and a home computer from his income taxes.

The other general purpose tool introduced at the time was word processing. The Apple II was never a great word processor, due in part to the keyboard and display. The preeminent word processor of its day was the Wang Word Processor, a cluster of microprocessor controlled screens sharing a disk drive. This product line was so successful that, at its peak in the 1980s, Wang Laboratories had annual revenues of $3 billion and employed over 40,000 people.
Enter the IBM PC (1981) with spreadsheets and word processing; exit Wang and the minicomputer companies, DEC, Prime, Data General, Nixdorf, and more.

The great strength of computers is that they are general purpose machines. As such, they don’t really solve any specific problem; it is the software that provides the solution. PC manufacturers understand this. Before the Apple App store, cell phone makers tended to develop proprietary software that served a few purposes, all related to being a cell phone, not a general purpose problem solver.

My conclusion: in the marketplace derby, the general purpose programmable device always comes from behind to overtake and defeat specialized (and therefore arbitrarily limited) implementations. Cell phone manufacturers, beware.

How VisiCalc and the early word processors evolved into Excel and Word is a fascinating story, a business and legal story as well as a technological one, but to tell it would take a big book, not a blog.

Historical footnote. Dan Bricklin received his first IBM PC prototype from my former colleague at the IBM Cambridge Scientific Center, Fritz Giesin. I had left IBM in January, 1981, and never knew this. It was a circuit board on a piece of plywood with sockets to plug in a keyboard, etc.

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