The man who saved 'blogging'?

Trellix's Dan Bricklin on the Web log craze and how it's reshaping the idea of Internet community.

Charles Cooper
Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
6 min read
When they talk about "PC industry veterans," Dan Bricklin can lay as good a claim to that title as anyone. Along with Bob Frankston, Bricklin helped usher in one revolution with the development of the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, in 1979.

Now he finds himself dabbling in, well, if not a revolution in the making, a phenomenon that's taking the Internet by storm. They call it "blogging."

Blogs--shorthand for Web logs--are personal Web sites studded with brief, chronological updates, including links to other Internet pages, discussions and articles.

The biggest supplier of blogging software is Pyra Labs, an Internet start-up that claims about 150,000 registered users. The loyal fan base notwithstanding, Pyra has been financially hurting; there were concerns that Blogger software co-creator and Pyra Labs founder Evan Williams would be forced to shut down even before he was able to deliver a paid version of the product to market. At one point, Pyra put out a call to software users for contributions.

Enter Bricklin, who in his most recent incarnation as the founder and chief technical officer of Trellix is a noted blogger himself. Trellix earlier this week signed a licensing agreement with Pyra that provides the company with a needed fillip. Though Bricklin is quick to point out that this is a business relationship, not charity in disguise, the eleventh-hour rescue does parallel a chapter in his earlier career as a software developer.

In a recent interview Bricklin gave us his take on the blogger craze as well as on the challenges faced by independent software developers and small software companies in a market dominated by giants.

Q: Would you summarize how the deal came together?
A: Evan (Williams) is 20 years younger than me, but I could relate to where he was and when we actually talked, I knew what to do. I realized that when you're having problems, you should let the right people know--though they don't always listen. My mother doesn't ask about what's going on in my life because she reads my Web log. In his case, he let everybody know what was going on and made his net a lot wider. Without Web logging, I wouldn't have known about how important his following was. I didn't want that to go away.

Interesting parallel. There's a story that you've recounted on your own Web log about how Mitch Kapor of Lotus bailed you out when one of your previous companies had it tough.
I was going to SoftCon in 1985, when I ran into Mitch in the line for a Delta flight from (Boston's) Logan Airport. At the time, we needed to do something right away. The bank was breathing down our back. Mitch flew first class, I didn't. (Laughing) But there was an empty seat next to him and I sat down, and for half the flight we talked. We decided that "our people will talk to your people," and by that Friday, we had a check. So having been in close financial times in the past, I realized what you want is a partner who will just get down to it and solve your problem. And that's how I approached it (with Pyra).

How do you plan to integrate Pyra's Blogger technology into Trellix?
We're still looking at what to do. Initially it will continue to be what it is, which is its own platform. A lot of what (Pyra's) working on...are things we need anyway. But the first thing was to make sure Pyra didn't go away. That was my chief concern. Here you had expertise, brand--the whole thing. If (Pyra) had gone under, that would have been a blow to personal Web sites.

That was made easier because Trellix wasn't in the same exact segment of the site development market.
We didn't address that area much at all. But even though his product could be viewed as a competitor, when we announced our product in spring of last year, Evan wrote nice things about it on his Web logs and seemed like a real mensch. People like that who are in the industry shouldn't be discouraged.

But you also had a business rationale for doing this?
This is not like it was a charity case. These aren't the pre-bubble days. We wouldn't have done it if not for business reasons. There had to be something post-bubble that we could deal with.

Why do you think the Web log phenomenon has taken off in almost guerilla fashion in the last year?
It's people talking to people who care about them or what they write about. Most of the people who do this aren't trying to win the Pulitzer. Most are just trying to communicate with people about things they care about.

But do you think there will be an application for Blogger-like services in the business market?
Of course. Why do you think Lotus Notes, for example, was popular? We didn't believe instant messaging would take off in business either, but these are communications. People always say it's over. They used to say that IBM dominates the business but then along came DEC and Apple, and Aldus, Netscape, Intuit, etc. The problem with those things is you can't join them later on. Web logging is a means of communication, and you get this very personal feeling about that. It's an amplification of what you write and say to more than one reader; you get this feeling that people are listening and they care. Not everything you write will touch them, but people find different things of interest and it's such a reinforcing chord when they write you back.

Just like e-mail.
A lot of people have been doing this with e-mail. But that's more intrusive and you can't batch it up. It's so much better in a blog format. You have an audience, and when something's of interest you get this 15 seconds--or should that be 15 megabytes?--of fame...It's kind of like the village square with people crowding around to hear the latest. And this lets you do this as well as to come back with the ability to join in later on. My mother doesn't ask about what's going on in my life because she reads my Web log.

Is the challenge faced by smaller companies like Pyra emblematic of a larger question--that is, developers of interesting, if not leading-edge, software trying to make it in a market that's dominated by huge software factories?
Pyra has made a mark. They have 150,000 people using their product, and there could be 1 million readers. Think about the amount of time if the average poster posts twice a day. It's a lot of reading--more than most small publications get. What we didn't know in the pre-bubble days was what the right size was to be financially viable.

The days of the bubble were like being in a wartime economy, where you don't know the actual value of things. In a normal economy, you do understand the value (of a company). You figure out what you're good at, what kind of revenue you can generate, what are your expenses and what is sustainable. And we now know that personal Web sites matter.

You've been doing this since, what, the late 1970s? If the industry continues to be dominated by the bigger companies--even with the transformation being wrought by the Internet--what do you think will be the impact on the quality of software development?
People always say it's over. They used to say that IBM dominates the business but then along came DEC and Apple, and Aldus, Netscape, Intuit, etc. There are constantly new things coming about, especially with the new capabilities in price that weren't available before. There have always been new developments, and the applications of tomorrow will be things we haven't thought about.

What does it depend on?
As long as there are platforms we can innovate on, there will be innovation.

There's some skepticism out there about whether Microsoft can resist coming up with a lock-in regarding SOAP. Do you think the big companies will support something like XML-RPC in addition to SOAP 1.1?
(Editor's note: SOAP, or Simple Object Access Protocol, is a Web standard that enables e-commerce transactions. XML, or Extensible Markup Language, is a Web standard for data exchange. And RPC, or Remote Procedure Calls, allows programs on one computer to "talk" to programs on another.)

It doesn't matter what they support. It matters what we'll use. I don't know what will be the standard way of communicating there. But I do know that XML has grabbed its piece. XML, the syntax of XML--that one we're not arguing about anymore, thank God. There's a lot of struggling to find the widely accepted applications where it makes us all use the same standard. I don't know what's going to happen in that area; it's still shaking out.