On VisiCalc, patents, and pioneering
You've said before that you don't regret not becoming filthy rich on
VisiCalc. Is that still the case?
Yeah. My life is fine. I'm having lots of fun and I'm getting to develop a
whole lot of other products that I may not have otherwise. And I'm not
But you could have been a software gazillionaire if you could have
patented the technology.
Patents are still a problem. Normally, in an industry, patents start from
day one. In the computing business, we had no patents up until 1981. You
had to sneak it through by pretending you built this machine that didn't
have software in it, because if it had software they'd kick it out. Maybe
one in ten software patents slipped by.
That's why we didn't patent VisiCalc. We tried and the lawyers said, "Your
chances are very slim; it will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to
try." VisiCorp decided not to try to patent the product. We wouldn't have
let anybody make anything like a spreadsheet because we would have held our
patent very tight. We were very fussy about that.
In 1981, the Supreme Court said that just because something has software
doesn't mean it's not patentable. That's 18 months after VisiCalc
announced. You only have 18 months to patent, so we lost the ability.
What happened is you have all of the work that occurred up until 1981 was
done assuming there are no patents. Everybody copied ideas from each other.
Now we have people patenting things done 20 years ago. It's creating a lot
We've built the whole set of tools for our business in a way that assumes
there weren't patents. We would have built compilers differently, we would
have taught development differently. Everything would have been different
if we knew that there were patents.
If you have a patent on a little piece of a word processor, then that's a
very important patent. If the word processor sells for $39, you can't go
paying a dollar a copy to all of these different people who are doing
patents. You can't pay one percent of your gross (a common thing for
patents) to a thousand people because there are so many ideas that could be
patentable in one software product. In other disciplines, that's not as
much of a problem because the basic patents would have expired, but in our
business, all these basic patents can occur now.
Then there's the submarine patent. You say, "Wouldn't it be great if we had
a program that could translate languages and do a good job of it?" So you
patent the process but not the programming. You just skip over it by
saying, "Assuming you had software that could to such-and-such, then you'd
have the perfect translation program." Then you wait until someone figures
out how to do the hard part: the programming. In software, we call it SMOP,
a small matter of programming. Then you let the patent surface.
When you were starting out, did you ever foresee anything like the
Internet and the sort of boom...?
We did. If you read Bob
Frankston's master's thesis from the mid-'70s, he was talking about
micropayments in a wired world that included the ARPANet. We were concerned
with things of that sort back in the mid-'70s. How do you trust people and
how do you deal with all of these $2.50 things like you do with credit
We saw some things. But did we foresee that VisiCalc would be a program
that would take off so much? No, not any more than anybody else.
What didn't happen that you thought would have by now?
When I was a little kid, I remember going into an electronics store down a
block from my house. And they said, "In ten years, we'll have these flat
television sets we can hang on the wall." I've seen some of them at Comdex,
but we still don't have those flat television sets that normal people can
What about in computing?
I had hoped pen computing would be earlier than it was.
It seems to me you've always been a little bit ahead of your time. First
spreadsheets, then pen computing...
No, no! The things that I do actually help move things forward. A person
who's ahead of his or her time never knows what could have been if only he
or she had waited. I actually made a difference, made it happen. There are
a lot of people who think they pushed a tidal wave because they're riding
it. Some of us push the tidal waves--and that's a fun thing to do. When
you're a child of the '60s, you want to change the world; you want to make
it a better place. Those of us from my generation who have been working in
computers have been making it a better place. At least we feel it
is. We think computers are important.
Have computers really made the world better?
It could be worse. Do you know what it was like for people who had to write
a thesis? They didn't have word processors and they paid people to type
them, and when there was a mistake it had to be corrected. Remember
You know, kids don't know what dial phones are. "What's a dial? Why do we
call it dialing?" Why do people call computer prototypes a breadboard?
Because you used to get a wooden breadboard and you'd screw the tubes into
that, you'd wire them together, and that's how you would prototype
electronics. What about "booting" a computer? To start a computer, you had
to have enough of a program that could load the rest of the program to load
the operating system. So you had a little thing that loaded more that
loaded more. It's like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, so it was
called a bootstrap loader.
Do you ever feel like the wise old man because you remember all this
When I was in my early 20s and I was working at Digital on a word
processing system, my boss, Jack Gilmore, was like an ancient. There are
videotapes of him when he was in his early 20s with Edward R. Murrow. At
the Computer Museum, you'll see him in the background when Edward R. Murrow
was interviewing Jay Forrester about the Whirlwind. They pulled
all-nighters to do the demo on live television. To me, they were the
old-timers. They invented the things that we take for granted today, things
that you don't even know exist because they're so buried in the middle of
the machine. I worked with the people that invented those things. We're
building on what they did.
NEXT: The feds, the little guys, and the importance of being Bill Gates