Three Minutes: Godfathers of the SpreadsheetAs VisiCalc turns 25, originators Dan Bricklin, Bob Frankston, and Dan Fylstra recall when people wondered what a spreadsheet was.
Eric Bender, special to PC World
Twenty-five years ago, personal computers got serious. The occasion: The introduction of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and the original "killer app."
VisiCalc enjoyed a relatively brief time in the sun. The program made its debut in 1979 and saw its sales peak in 1982. It was sold to Lotus Development only three years later, brought down by 1-2-3 and squabbles between creator Software Arts and marketer VisiCorp.
But VisiCalc changed the world by bringing the Apple II into offices worldwide.
In May, the Software History Center in Boston reunited veterans of the PC's first decade to reminisce and exchange war stories. The luminaries included the three principals behind VisiCalc: Dan Bricklin, who conceived the idea; Bob Frankston, who programmed VisiCalc; and Dan Fylstra, whose VisiCorp brought the product to a surprised world. Here are edited versions of interviews with all three.
VisiCalc Co-Creator Dan Bricklin
Twenty-five years after inventing the electronic spreadsheet, Dan Bricklin talks about the dawn of personal computing, why small software firms remain crucial, how technology aids community, and what people still don't get about Tablet PCs.
PC World: What's it like looking back at VisiCalc?
Dan Bricklin: Those were the days when we believed in the PC and the personal use of computing, and society hadn't accepted it yet. We were evangelizing it. We believed in something that did come about.
We've had anniversaries for VisiCalc throughout. It's nice that we're still remembering it 25 years later. One year later, they weren't remembering it.
PCW: Early stories about VisiCalc had a hard time describing it.
Bricklin: You can't describe some of these things. Until you're actually immersed in a certain technology and using it and seeing how the public uses it, you don't necessarily understand it. Some people don't understand why instant messaging has taken off so much among certain parts of the population. That was true for the spreadsheet, which seems so obvious now.
Plus you had to buy a computer to use it. VisiCalc was a $5000 purchase, if you included a good printer. But for many people it paid for itself in the first year, or in the first month.
PCW:What are the most important changes in the spreadsheet since then?
Bricklin: What has changed is that the presentation of the output has progressed quite a bit, opening up lots of new applications. The most interesting thing is that it hasn't changed much. The basic concept is the same: organizing rows and columns that reference each other, absolute and relative copy operations, and a grid that isn't dedicated for any particular purpose. You can lay things out as you see fit. Now, of course, it's taught in grade school, so people learn spreadsheeting and spreadsheet thinking from early on.
The thing that surprises me is that we haven't come up with a better calculating metaphor. [The market failure of Lotus] Improv to me was what sealed that. Improv was based on tables as objects in their own right, so you had to think down to the level of the object. But people aren't that organized in their thinking. And people like free-format tools.
PCW:Do you get a kick from seeing spreadsheets in use?
Bricklin:I love it. I still get letters. I responded today to a letter from somebody saying, "Thank you for putting food on my table." That makes me feel really good.
PCW:What do you use?
Bricklin:I use Excel if I have Office on the machine, otherwise Works if it's on the machine. I don't need that much of a spreadsheet. But at least once a year, I use it for something, and I'm happy it's there. I have a feeling that if I hadn't invented it back then, I would have invented it now, because I need it. That's the way I am. I've always viewed myself as a tool builder.
PCW:Earlier this year you left Interland, which had bought Trellix, your Web-authoring tool company. What's next?
Bricklin:I really missed writing code and having product out there, in whatever area I felt like. Plus, I like small business. So I'm back at Software Garden again. I don't know what I'm going to be doing, but I want to start practicing a bit. And we've got to figure out business models that work. In today's world, open source has become very important, and it's very tricky.
I believe that the small software developer is an important part of our society. A lot of innovation comes from there. Ideas are tried that won't always be tried in a space that's funded by somebody else.
PCW:You've been a big proponent of pen computing. How's the Tablet PC looking?
Bricklin:Tablet PCs are too heavy for some uses, they don't have the [optimal screen] resolution, and there are a lot of other technical issues. But they're getting there. And for some people, they are there.
It's good that Microsoft is pushing the tablet forward; it opens up a new form factor. With [Wi-Fi] and the Internet, we're frequently just choosing and clicking, and the pen is wonderful for that. I can sit here reading with my tablet. I don't even necessarily use the pen; I use the arrow buttons on the machine.
The pen isn't about handwriting recognition. That's completely wrong. That's like taking a sound card and viewing the sound card by how well it does voice recognition--rather than the fact that I can now do voice over IP, and rip MP3s and play back MP3s, and do learning at a distance with Flash movies, and view streaming video with audio.
PCW:What do you see happening with smart phones?
Bricklin:Mobile's really important. I've got my Treo, and I've been singing the praises of things like that for some time.
We were in New York this weekend, and we were walking around in the city. And you don't see that many people listening to music players. It used to be that they all had Walkmans, but now they're talking on cell phones. That cuts across all economic areas. All the laborers have cell phones. The cop on the beat is talking to a loved one while he's directing traffic. The cab driver is on the phone all the time.
I'm interested in how that has gotten into your life. You can't operate that well in today's society without a cell phone.
With unlimited plans for cell phones, you don't think twice about talking to people anywhere, and it makes it much easier to keep up relationships at a distance. E-mail makes it much easier to keep up relationships at a distance, and more of them.
I think that community is coming back. With the Web, blogs, e-mail, and cell phones, we're seeing a resurgence in community. Technology is now something for bringing people together. And mobile is a big piece of that, because we're mobile. Getting e-mail on your cell phone is a real help now. Text messaging, which is mobile IM, is becoming really important around the world.
People need community and we find ways of using tools in a community way. When the telephone came in, the telephone company told you that it was wrong to use it for non-business purposes. But society took it where people wanted it to go. The farm wife needed to talk. You got the phone so you could call the doctor, but you'd also use it to be less isolated. And we're using technology again that way.
It's also interesting that connectivity has moved to do-it-myself. The success of Wi-Fi, the big success, is in the home and office. You go into all these homes and you see these little antennas and the lights flashing. They've sold incredible numbers lately. And that's all do-it-yourself.
PCW:Just like the start of the Web?
Bricklin:The Web was do-it-yourself. People found out that you just have to learn a little HTML, which for a certain segment of the population was not that hard. And that was sufficient to produce an immense amount of material.
When you put your first page up on the Web, that feeling of personal freedom, of accomplishment and ability and potential, is an incredible feeling.
That's what built us the Web. Then you put Google on top of it, which mines it to give us all access to all these things that everybody did. It's really cool.
So there's this distributed do-it-yourself aspect that is very, very important. We keep forgetting about it and we keep thinking that everything is all centralized in places like Hollywood and New York, which really should not be the case.
Bricklin has posted more of his memories, and a History of VisiCalc, on his Web site.
Three Minutes: VisiCalc Co-Creator Bob Frankston
Photograph by Richard Dunne/Software History Council
After writing VisiCalc, Bob Frankston went on to pioneer early e-mail at Lotus, pen computing applications at Slate, and "IP everywhere" networking at Microsoft. Now he'd like to reinvent the Internet.
PC World:What was your background before VisiCalc?
Bob Frankston:I'd been programming since 1963. A lot of years of programming expertise went into it. I'd worked on machines of all sizes. The biggest surprise was that I could write a small program.
PCW:Okay, how small was it?
Frankston:The goal was 16KB, with a 4K operating system. Actually, it took 32KB. Every byte counted. We dropped the interactive Help to stay inside 32KB. These days, you can have a 100MB Help system.
PCW:How do you describe your approach to non-programmers?
Frankston:It was like origami. Fold the paper one way and get an elephant, fold it another way and get something else. There were lots of ways of using the same mechanisms.
I guess VisiCalc was very hard to write; it took people a lot of time to clone it.
PCW:How much did it build on previous financial tools?
Frankston:The key breakthrough in VisiCalc is the grid, which actively reduced interactivity [compared to earlier financial modeling tools that depended on writing commands]. The reduction of features made it feasible.
Some of its features are still here. I think "/" is still a command key in Excel. [Frankston fires up his notebook to confirm this.]
PCW:What's it like now compared to the early days?
Frankston:I just jumped ship to the freedom of inventing things. The ship is now much taller, and jumping is farther, but there's still exciting stuff. And today's PC is so much bigger than the old mainframe.
But the PC has been around for a long time. It's pretty obsolete and we're stuck with junky systems. We've brought back the mainframe and it's not really what we want. You try to do something like look up a contact in Outlook, and you just wait for all the system stuff to load. People forget that slow kills. These lessons have to be relearned each time.
I'm actually far more interested in networking stuff in these days. The Internet is in pretty sorry shape. The word 'pathetic' comes to mind. You look at the Web and you see a whole traffic jam. I want to look at all these devices and how you connect them, what you do with them and how you can build things. We need more basic [and highly programmable] tools.
Three Minutes: VisiCorp Founder Daniel Fylstra
After starting up one of the first PC software firms, Dan Fylstra successfully launched VisiCalc and then brought the innovative but overambitious VisiOn application suite to the market. Since 1990, his Frontline Systems has sold quantitative analytical tools.
PC World: What's it like looking back to the VisiCalc era?
Dan Fylstra: It was a very creative time. I guess I'd go back all the way to 1975 through 1980, so much happened. We had stars in our eyes. Others have said this, but we were children of the '60s--we wanted to change the world. This was our way to actually change the world, and in fact we did.
We sort of dared to think that these new machines were going to amount to something, that personal computing would blossom. It wasn't going to just be a neat hobby thing forever.
PCW:When Dan Bricklin came to you with the idea for VisiCalc, it was still simply an idea.
Fylstra:It was very much the gleam-in-the-eye stage at that point, but he was ready to work on it. And I said, 'That sounds really interesting, why don't we pursue this?' He wanted to prototype it and that's when I loaned him the Apple 2, the one I had bought from Steve Jobs. We had so little money to work with that that sort of thing mattered. We had this one Apple 2 because Steve Jobs sold to us at a discount.
The great thing was that this industry was being born and it was possible to bootstrap your way into it and that's what we did. But there were lots of things that weren't possible. For example, taking a small niche product and making it a business success would have been very difficult back then. But it's very possible today because search engines on the Internet let you efficiently reach a world market for the narrowest imaginable application and make money out of it.
It's still a very interesting time. It's striking how rapidly this industry has been willing to adopt and assimilate change.
PCW:How did you market a brand-new application category?
Fylstra:First, we created a number of example spreadsheets in VisiCalc of applications that were aimed at markets that we felt would be heavy users. A lot of these were financial applications. We had the classic pro forma financial statement, inventory planning, real estate analysis, and insurance analysis. We had a series of things like that, each of them kind of a useful application. These were assembled into a self-running demo that ran with the product. So we created a way for people to see tangible applications of the product.
Then I called on people at Apple, starting with Jobs and [co-founder Michael] Markkula, and they introduced us to their marketing managers. What we were trying to do was to leverage our way into the distribution channels with help from Apple and from [retailer] Computerland. I was able to go to these Apple regional dealer meetings and present VisiCalc, giving these live demos on a big screen in front of all these dealers. And it was oh's and ah's. They just hadn't seen anything like this before.
My colleague from Apple would get up and he had a presentation where he would talk about different markets that viewers could go after. One was home finance, one was accounting, one was corporate use, one was education, one was science and engineering. And he would then say what products fit into what category. VisiCalc fit into all of them.
That was not lost on the dealers. A lot of people just sat in front of this self-running demo and after a while they stopped it and started playing on the thing themselves. They learned it that way and they knew just enough to show it to customers.
PCW:How does VisiOn, VisiCorp's pioneering integrated application suite, look now?
Fylstra:I do wish that Scott Warren and Dennis Abbe, who are absolutely world class developers, could get recognition for what they did. Because they did it ahead of anybody else, ahead of Digital Research and ahead of Microsoft by several years. VisiOn had a graphical interface and mouse and standard menus, and an internal API for writing applications. It actually had a multitasking operating system, which I think didn't appear in Windows until about Windows 3.0.
It was handicapped by the hardware at the time. On an 8088, it was sluggish. On an IBM PC AT, it performed actually quite well. But the problem of course is that when we launched it, most people were still just getting XTs. And then it was CGA graphics, which meant that the resolution of the characters and so on was limited.
So VisiOn was ahead of the hardware, but that's not all. It was ahead of the market. What I mean is that most customers entering the market at that time were not looking to buy this kind of discontinuous innovation, new, completely different technology. They were looking to buy the same kind of software that their friends and neighbors had already bought.
For most people, the idea of VisiCalc or Lotus 1-2-3 was a big enough step. Those products also were not ahead of the hardware, they were well matched to the hardware at that time. VisiOn shipped in September of 1983. It was seven years before Windows itself and Windows-based applications really started to take hold.
PCW:After VisiCorp, you started Frontline Systems, which extends spreadsheets.
Fylstra:Frontline Systems wound up creating the solver that shipped in Excel 3.0. That worked out pretty well for us. There are more than 100 million copies of our solver out there. That's always been a selling tool, a lead generation tool for other things that Frontline Systems has done.
PCW:When you see someone using Excel or another spreadsheet, do you tell yourself, aha, I'm one of the reasons that person is using that software?
Fylstra:A little bit. But I probably think, aha, another potential customer!