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Computing pioneers get historical nod

Spreadsheet pioneer Dan Bricklin is among the innovators honored by the Computer History Museum.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it, which is one of the reasons you'd better start paying attention to the Computer History Museum. Otherwise the hard drive on your iPod could suddenly swell to the size of a Cadillac Escalade.

The museum is dedicated to telling the story of the people and products--including those gargantuan 10MB hard drives that were the cutting edge of 1960s computing--that inaugurated the modern computing era.

The people side of the mission came to life Tuesday night, as the museum inducted five more visionaries as fellows. They join the ranks of pioneers such as Intel's Gordon Moore and Adobe Systems founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke.

This year's inductees represent a diverse lot of technology breakthroughs:

• Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston helped kick off the PC revolution by creating VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet and the first "killer app" for early PCs.

• Niklaus Wirth created a wealth of programming languages, including granddaddy Pascal, that helped formalize software development.

• Erich Bloch and the late Bob Evans were instrumental in the creation of the S/360, the bet-the-company IBM mainframe that changed the face of computing.

The utility of the spreadsheet might seem blindingly obvious today, but in the late 1970s it took a rare combination of computing skills and business sense to see the need. Bricklin developed the computing skills as a hobbyist and discovered the business part as an MBA student at Harvard. He said he helped create VisiCalc to solve his immediate problems with creating visually coherent representations of business data. "I wanted a replacement for paper, pencil and calculator," he said.

The result was one of the first computer programs that spoke to the average person more than the solder-and-punch card set. "If you showed this (VisiCalc) to computer people, they said, 'There's nothing special here; I could do this in Basic," he said. "If you showed it to business people and demonstrated how it could solve their specific problems, they started waving credit cards in your face."

These days, Bricklin is concerned with re-thinking software development for long-term durability. "We're building societal infrastructure around software, and we need to think about what that means," he said.

Bricklin proposes some type of open-source software core for basic computing applications, around which companies and customers would be free to customize. The original VisiCalc was successful because of a similar combination. "VisiCalc is an example of the principle of building software that can be customized at the edges," he said. "I think it's one of the best examples of encouraging end-user programming, even though people didn't know they were doing that."

Frankston took credit for some of the less technical aspects of VisiCalc, including the name, a shortening of "visual calculator" and an improvement over Bricklin's favorite: "ElectroLedger." He thus also accepted in good humor the dubious distinction of originating the Silicon Valley tradition of adding gratuitous capital letters to proper names.

While VisiCalc's design is still reflected in modern productivity applications, it's a bit harder to see the continuation of the work done by Bloch and Evans. The scientists were honored for their work on the IBM S/360 mainframe of the 1950s, a system that required a space the size of a four-car garage and an industrial-strength refrigeration system.

Yet those systems laid the groundwork for modern PCs, Bloch said, which have succeeded by miniaturizing much of the technology he and his colleagues created and staying true to concepts such as standards and modular design. "The first 30 years of computing is what most of the work going on today is based on," he said. "What you see today is a refection of the fact those systems we developed were built to be durable and flexible."

Bloch said a big part of the S/360's success stemmed from the fact that IBM did everything from circuit design to software development to marketing in-house. But the benefits of such a "total systems approach" are being threatened today by outsourcing trends, he said. "The issue isn't so much the loss of jobs...but that the center of gravity for an essential technology such as software moves elsewhere," he said.