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Software pioneer Bricklin tackles wikis

Dan Bricklin, the man behind one of the first PC applications, brings tools to the Web to foster a mashup of wiki technology and spreadsheets. Images: Counting on WikiCalc

If ever someone was going to merge two technologies as disparate as wikis and spreadsheets, VisiCalc creator Dan Bricklin might well be the person for the job.

In 1979, Bricklin released VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers. Now he's close to finishing the beta for WikiCalc, an open-source, browser-based collaboration tool that mimics the functionality of a spreadsheet while leveraging the technology of wikis, which let anyone, anywhere manipulate data across the Web.

Dan Bricklin Dan Bricklin

Currently in alpha--though a stable beta version is expected by the end of February--WikiCalc is a general purpose tool developed with AJAX that runs either locally or off a server on Windows, Mac OS X, Unix or Linux. WikiCalc is designed to let people enter, store and modify data in the tabular format with which so many Excel, Lotus 1-2-3 and, yes, VisiCalc users are familiar.

"It holds a lot of promise, both because it's using the spreadsheet metaphor, which is the one thing people know for working with quantitative information and because "there's nobody better in the world to build this thing," said Ross Mayfield, CEO of collaboration software maker SocialText.

To Mayfield, WikiCalc is the answer to a problem that has been percolating for some time in the world of IT. That is, he said, that spreadsheets have traditionally been a single-user application screaming for functionality that could let multiple people edit data quickly and easily.

Excel competitor?
Of course, WikiCalc isn't the only way to use a spreadsheet on the Web.

Another product, Num Sum, lets people create Web-based, sharable spreadsheets, though not using WikiCalc's open-source model. And Microsoft's Excel by itself does not have the capability for multiple people to work inside a single spreadsheet. But this can be done using the Groove collaboration tool that Microsoft acquired last year. With Office 2007, due later this year, businesses will be able to get Groove and Excel together as part of the Enterprise Edition of Office, the highest-end bundle. Also, Windows Sharepoint Services provides wiki-like editing capabilities for spreadsheets.

WikiCalc

In addition, JotSpot Tracker is a product in public beta that like WikiCalc allows anyone to create, publish and share custom tracking applications like spreadsheets that can integrate with other applications.

But in the world of spreadsheets, everything is going to be compared to Excel, and Bricklin's software is solving problems users have been dealing with for years.

"With (Excel), you get people playing e-mail volleyball with attachments all day long, so it's grossly inefficient," Mayfield said. "How do you track changes on a spreadsheet? What happens if you don't have just two people going back and forth, (but) have a finance department of 40 people trying to roll up numbers."

Bricklin's answer is to make it possible for anyone using WikiCalc to enter data and for anyone else to edit that data and have those edits be reflected on everyone's computers instantaneously.

"You could use it as an authoring tool without having anything more than a hosting account from your ISP," Bricklin said.

For now, not all WikiCalc features are live. For example, the ability to enter HTML into cells and do dynamic calls for information from the Web is not yet available. But Bricklin said that most, if not all, features should be ready in the beta version later this month.

As a functional spreadsheet, WikiCalc is definitively not on par with Excel, those familiar with it are quick to point out. Yet the software can handle many spreadsheet-like functions, including presenting data in the tabular format that so many are comfortable with and calculating formulas in discrete cells. And that is what could make it accessible to large numbers of people.

WikiCalc's potential success, however, also assumes that Bricklin--who in recent years has been consulting, speaking and running his small software company, Software Garden--can effectively get the word out.

To Dennis Howlett, a British consultant who advises software developers on how to meet customers' needs, Bricklin may be too nice to handle WikiCalc's marketing on his own.

"He's got the background, but whether he can market it is another question," Howlett said. "I find him a lovely, engaging man who clearly is thinking about community in deep meaningful ways. That kind of doesn't go very well with marketing in my experience. Marketing types need to be hard-asses."

Still, Howlett is a fan of WikiCalc and said that while the software won't replace Excel in the workplace, it could well meet the needs of a number of different constituencies.

"Dan's trying to do some really interesting things with this," he said. "He's trying to make it pretty AJAX-y, but he's also trying to keep it relatively simple, so it'll meet the needs of people who only need to do simple things."

Further, because the software is open source--it will be generally available at no cost under a general public license, while corporations will be able to buy it under a traditional license--Howlett expects to see people using it in a number of creative ways.

He said, for example, that WikiCalc could be used in accounting environments to provide transaction reporting tools for which Excel wasn't built.

"WikiCalc is a way of solving that from a developer perspective," he said, "because they can simply suck the transaction data straight into the (spreadsheet) and that avoids at least one if not two steps."

Howlett also said he believes WikiCalc could be used to break down the barriers between finance and sales departments by making it easy to collaborate on data.

"So it means that the finance guy can be a help to the sales guy," he said. "They've always been like enemies, and now they can be friends."

In any case, Bricklin is excited about WikiCalc--which he is spending most of his time on these days--and believes the software is going to show the world that the Web is the place where productivity tools will be heading in the years ahead.

"This isn't Excel, any more than a wiki is Word," he said. "But I think it shows where things might be going. Just like some of the online e-mail (applications) may have been a subset of what's available in client-based e-mail, there are some things you should do on the server side."

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.

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