Programmers who defined the technology industry: Where are they now?

The future of the computer... circa 1986.

By , ITworld |  Development, Bill Gates, Charles Simonyi

Dan Bricklin: VisiCalc

Dan Bricklin
Image credit: PC World

Then: The VisiCalc spreadsheet was the original "killer app," by which we used to mean: "This application is the reason you have to buy a computer." I knew a mechanical engineer who snuck his Apple IIe into the office so he could run VisiCalc on business problems, when the waiting list for the Control Data mainframe was months long. VisiCalc, created by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston sold over half a million copies by 1983; the company that marketed it, Software Arts, imploded due to legal battles.

On innovation: "I went to see my finance professor [with the VisiCalc prototype], who was discouraging. He looked up from his printouts and he said: 'Well, there already are financial forecasting systems and people won't buy micros, for example, to do real estate.' ...Of course, now Harvard requires you to buy a PC before you can go to their business school."

On the evolution of programming: "People are writing their own programs. Anybody who uses a spreadsheet is writing their own programs; it's just that the language is different now.... We're just making the users do more and more of the programming themselves, but they don't know it. Using different style sheets with Microsoft Word is doing programming; using spreadsheets is doing programming."

On the business of software development: "There is an inherent cottage industry component to programming. ...Any large company could have a million programmers working on some idea to produce a better one, but they don't because it doesn't work that way. The economics aren't there. Sometimes the idea behind a program is one small creative effort. ...In terms of marketing, you do need a large marketing organization. But there's a variety of ways to do that, just like with [publishing] books. ...If you look at the biggest sellers in the software industry, in general they were written by very few people."

On the future of computing: "All sorts of products are developing now. People are saying, 'What about networking, why can't we connect this stuff together?' What about the publication systems, like the inexpensive ones available on the Mac? And the really great ones that are available on the bigger machines, like Apollo and Sun? A few years ago, no one thought that in-house publishing was going to be a major use of computers."

On the future of computer hardware: "The personal computer of the future should be more like a notebook. I carry my notebook around and why shouldn't it be a computer? Well, that's different than the PC as we know it. Computer technology is going to be used for all sorts of new areas like that. ...One way to have a computer follow you around is to miniaturize it. Why go to all the trouble to put legs on it if we can miniaturize it to the point that we can carry it on our bodies. We're getting to the point soon where we can get a lot of computing power in a very small space."

Today: Bricklin runs a tiny company called Software Garden whose products include Note Taker for the iPad and a video, A Developer's Introduction to Copyright and Open Source, He also does consulting and speaking.

Bricklin spoke with me about software methodologies, programming career choices, and other issues.

Lammers asked many of the programmers, "What kind of training or type of thought leads to the greatest productivity in the computer field?" but for some reason didn't ask this question of Bricklin. I remedied the oversight.

In many ways, he says, their needs were different. Then, you needed experience in a variety of areas, which may not be as useful today. It certainly is good to have a varied background; as Bricklin explains, "For me it was very helpful to have a background in many different languages," since he could choose the appropriate language for the current application rather than "the one I know." Having a range, he says, keeps you from getting stuck in one system; and when new things come about, you aren't as lost.

But one thing is and was necessary: experience shipping a product. You should know, he says, "what it is to actually complete something and get it out the door. That's a real important thing to learn." Nothing beats the experience of shipping software, to take something from start to finish. You get feedback from users, and find out what you did right and wrong. It's even better, he says, to do this with other people, from whom you can learn "what it means to get all the pieces together of the project complete enough for you to get it out the door."

Bricklin programs much the same way he did in the 1980s. "One thing I've always done, for many years -- I know Bob Frankston did, too -- you have to figure out a path through the whole thing and implement that first," he says. And then you go back to add more. "Getting the path through is like building a scaffold. A lot more is put on [the application] before it's a real product," but you have the critical path in place. "It's always building off something that's working."

What about his premise, in 1986, that software development was inherently a "cottage industry?" That's still true, Bricklin says. "There still are small companies. And there are still small companies with leading companies in several [product] areas." The best chances for this may be the "App Store" marketplace and open source. Bricklin has some successful open source projects, and he is now in the app world. "Some of what I'm doing is like what I was doing 20 years ago," he adds.

Some products are more complex, and as a result, "The big companies do things that can only be built by a big company with many hands," he says. "That's always been the case and it looks like it is going to continue."

But individuals can still do things that are worthwhile and that they can make money on. "If we forget that we're going to lose a lot of creativity," says Bricklin.

Next page: Jonathan Sachs, Lotus 1-2-3

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