Four questions for Dan Bricklin, VisiCalc inventor

Dan Bricklin first came up with the idea of an electronic spreadsheet while he was at Harvard Business School in 1978. He later joined forces with Bob Frankston and Dan Fylstra to publish the now-legendary VisiCalc in 1979. Bricklin, currently president of software developer Software Garden Inc., recently spoke with Computerworld about the intent of VisiCalc and how the spreadsheet has evolved.

How did you originally intend the spreadsheet to be used? VisiCalc was supposed to reflect how people used paper. It wasn't about columns and rows and databases. The goal was to create a two-dimensional tool where letters, words and numbers could have independent calculations.

How did it evolve? As Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel evolved, the spreadsheet took on tedious things such as the formatting of numbers. You could type in 11 and it would show up as 11.00. Lotus added labels and text that could continue into the cell to the right and improved the overall look with pie charts [and other illustrative tools]. While VisiCalc let you import data from other places, [later] spreadsheet programs let you bring data in and out and created a GUI that showed grids and let you play with fonts. Lotus and Microsoft also let you write your own functions. Then Microsoft added pivot tables that let you pull in data from ODBC and other places.

What did this do to the spreadsheet's status in business? Spreadsheets became a hub in the middle of everything -- a corporate workhorse. When we first designed the spreadsheet, we were dealing with machines -- like an Apple II -- that didn't have the space to handle all the data. We could envision the spreadsheet being more powerful, but the underlying computer couldn't do that at that time. We had to adopt the attitude that we were willing to put up with some restrictions [such as the number of rows] in order to interface with the rest of the computing world.

And now? Now, computers and networks are far more powerful. Rather than mailing or e-mailing spreadsheets and then manually inputting updates, people can work on them together in real time. For instance, I've worked on wikiCalc, a multiperson editable spreadsheet that is accessed via a browser. I've also collaborated on Socialtext's SocialCalc, which is open source and being used not only by Socialtext but also as part of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit program that aims to help educate children in the developing world. The spreadsheet is no longer just a document-oriented productivity tool. Instead, it's a metaphor for how we modify data -- we pull in information from various internal and external sources and collaboratively look at it. All the animation and slicing of data is part of data visualization, which is driven from information in a spreadsheet, but that's not the core function of the spreadsheet.

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More about: Apple, Excel, Harvard Business School, inventor, Microsoft, VisiCalc
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