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The man who made PCs useful

Dan Bricklin isn't rich. He isn't particularly famous, either. Even in Silicon Valley, he's not in much danger of being recognized. Yet he's the man who almost single-handedly convinced companies that personal computers were more than toys.

CNET Newsmakers
October 13, 1997, Dan Bricklin
The man who made PCs useful
By Margie Wylie

Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

Dan Bricklin isn't rich. He isn't particularly famous, either. Even in Silicon Valley, he's not in much danger of being recognized. Yet he's the man who almost single-handedly convinced companies that personal computers were more than toys.

With Bob Frankston, Bricklin created the first electronic spreadsheet for the Apple II, called VisiCalc. A spreadsheet may not sound like such a big deal to today's users, but companies used to invest hours doing projections with manually calculated spreadsheets. Changing a single number in a spreadsheet meant recalculating, by hand, every single cell in the sheet. When VisiCalc shipped in 1978, number crunchers were in heaven. Change any cell and the entire sheet was recalculated instantly. VisiCalc inspired mass purchases of the Apple II, kick-starting the personal computer revolution.

Of course, VisiCalc and the Apple II both disappeared, but Bricklin's

legacy lives on. Because he was never able to patent the code or even the concept behind his electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc became the basis for Lotus 1-2-3 and the inspiration for Microsoft Excel. Most of us can't imagine doing our jobs without a computer, much less the spreadsheet he created. By all rights, Bricklin should be rich beyond his wildest dreams, but the United States didn't allow software patents until it was too late for him. Still, that hasn't stopped him.

The buoyant entrepreneur went on to create Dan Bricklin's Demo, a program that let software makers mock up their products before they ship. He was a founder of Slate, an early attempt at creating pen-based computers. And he's started up and sold several companies and products along the way. Talking to Bricklin, it seems he wouldn't want it any other way. The Harvard MBA splits his time between programming and business, going from one-man software projects to big start-ups and back again.

Now he's back with Trellix, a sort of Web word processor that creates hyperlinked documents without making users waste hours on HTML. Like VisiCalc, it's essentially a business tool and a time-saver.

Bricklin says he likes to keep moving and stay challenged. He loves his life in a quiet East Coast town and wouldn't live the high-flying existence of a Silicon Valley software executive if given the chance. But is he angling for the next VisiCalc? We chatted briefly with Bricklin in our San Francisco offices during a Trellix publicity tour.

If someone were to come up to you and say, "Do you know who you are?" as people sometimes do to famous folks, what would you think they were referring to?
Bricklin: Most people remember me as the person who cocreated the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc. There are others who know me for the Demo program that was used for prototyping software. Some know me for my work in pen computing when I was at Slate. Now, they'll know me for Trellix.

NEXT: On VisiCalc, patents, and pioneering


Age: 46

Claim to fame: Cocreator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for the PC

Bricklin's Law: Any product that pays for itself is a surefire winner

CNET Newsmakers
October 13, 1997, Dan Bricklin
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 poor, either.

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 of chaos.

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 cards?

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 buy.

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 Corrasable paper?

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 stuff?
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

CNET Newsmakers
October 13, 1997, Dan Bricklin
The feds, the little guys, and the importance of being Bill Gates

Whom do you most admire in the industry?
Whom do I most admire? There are a lot of people. Obviously Bill Gates. Gates is the richest guy in the world. It's very important to our industry that he is the richest guy in the world. That makes computers interesting to everybody, right?

He's sacrificing his life in a certain way for the rest of us. The interest he makes on the money he already has liquidated is more than most anybody needs to live well. And he could be living that way, but he's not. Gates likes what he's doing.

That's not good for a lot of other companies, but it's bringing computers to many people. He hurts some companies. I've been hurt by his stuff. He's copied my stuff, but I think it's been good for the industry. I admire that, other than personally how it might have been. He's a person to admire, his tenacity. CD-ROMs? Microsoft kept at it and kept at it. Pen computing? They kept at it when nobody else did.

I admire Mitch Kapor. He's a real entrepreneur, starting Lotus, then investing in Slate, and now Trellix. He also went and did the Electronic Frontier Foundation, went to Washington, and tried to change the world and represent our industry. For many years, he was the main voice of our industry to the public figures. The government can really mess things up for the PC business.

Does government understand the industry better now?
There is this problem with government in that it only sees one way of doing things. It's the old story of the blind men who encounter the elephant. One saw the leg and said it looks like a tree, the other said it looks like this and looks like that. It's really all of those things. A lot of legislators still are only seeing once little piece of the elephant and don't understand the whole picture. That's why it's helpful that our industry is becoming more pervasive. Normal people who are using [the technology] understand it. Youngsters who are using it in school and are getting older understand it, but a lot of people in the legislature are there because they weren't in technology, and they're older and too busy doing other things.

Obviously, they don't get the encryption stuff. When the telephone came about, the fact that you could tap lines was a bug in the system. We didn't make it purposely so that you could tap lines, but we figured out, "Oh, you could tap lines!" Well, law enforcement started depending on that. So now they think they must have that type of thing. Let's get real about this; let's let things move ahead.

There are only some people who think that because it is possible that some child may run into something on the Net, then we'll have stop it all. Now the fact that the child could go in a room, open up a drawer, pull out a pistol, and shoot themselves doesn't seem to bother them maybe as much. Let's figure out a way of just stopping the problem you're worried about without throwing out all the other good stuff. That involves understanding the technology.

On the other hand, the Clinton administration, compared to any one before, is so much more high-tech. If it weren't for [the White House site], the Internet may not have caught on as much. When the browser first came out, Mosaic, what did you do? How did you show it off? You went to "" Why? So you could see Socks and listen to Socks. It sounds so hokey, but it's true; that helped get things going. It's like Space Invaders got the Apple going. VisiCalc was the reason you supposedly bought the Apple, but you really bought it to play Space Invaders.

Is there a Bricklin's Law?
Yes, I've made one. When the product is a no-brainer to buy, when it pays for itself the first two weeks, that's when you really have something. That's how you know you have a real win. When we had VisiCalc, you could buy the Apple II, you could buy the Diablo printer, and you could buy VisiCalc--$5,000 total. It would pay itself back if you were using time-sharing in one month or two weeks, because that's what you were paying for it per month.

When you bought a Macintosh, a LaserWriter, and PageMaker--if you were sending out for typesetting--you paid it back the first time you used it.

VisiCalc took 20 hours of work per week for some people and turned it out in 15 minutes and let them become much more creative. Trellix is doing the same thing. You could put together a Web-style document as easy as you put together a spreadsheet or a PowerPoint presentation.