Dan Bricklin & VisiCalc at TEDx

February 20th, 2017 10:58 AM
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When Steve Wozniak gave a TED Talk, it was a disjointed series of anecdotes that gave us a glimpse into the early days of Apple. It was fun, but it wasn't a story.

Other veterans of that era have a more natural flair storytelling. Enter Dan Bricklin, who in November 2016 gave a TED Talk on the origins of his industry-redefining application, VisiCalc.

It's a familiar story, and one I mostly already knew, having learned it when I taught my high-school students how to use VisiCalc (as detailed in Juiced.GS Volume 10, Issue 1), though a few details I got wrong: I thought the plaque commemorating VisiCalc's conception was at Bricklin's undergrad of MIT, not his graduate school of Harvard.

But what really underscores this talk is just how revolutionary VisiCalc was. While I knew it was the first electronic spreadsheet, I assumed more of it was derived from analog counterparts: the grid-based patterns, the naming of cells, and the syntax of formulae are all so intuitive, I didn't realize that it all had to be created from scratch.

My thanks to my Massachusetts neighbors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston for making Apple the company it was. For more of the story, this time from Frankston, watch Kevin Savetz's interview from August 2016.

(Hat tip to Dagen Brock)

Personal data lineage

May 16th, 2011 11:19 AM
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The many hours of driving that composed my weekend were filled with podcasts. Among them were This Week in Tech's interviews with first Bob Frankston and then Dan Bricklin, creators of VisiCalc. The two pioneers must've been happy to finally talk about something other than their spreadsheet, as there was nary a mention of the Apple II to be found.

But around time index 34:03, Bricklin said something to which I can relate:

Every time I get a new hard disk with a new machine, I take everything I used to have from that old, huge 300 gigabyte, and put it the corner of the new drive, and then take that and put it in the corner of a new drive. I've been doing that for years. You always make copies.

This passage describes my practice perfectly. Although I occasionally clean my computer of any unused applications and extensions, the data is persistent, migrating with me from one machine to the next. As a result, I can at a moment's notice access any email I've sent in the last 14 years, or any school paper I've written in the last 23. All this data takes up less than one gigabyte. By 8-bit standards, that's staggering; by today's, having the output of an entire era fit on 0.2% of my current computer's capacity is humbling.

Other Apple II users are likely also inclined to be digital packrats — but what shape does that take? Have you converted your data to disk images? Do you keep your Apple II up and running, able to access the data in its original environment? Or are your hard drives long disconnected, waiting to be archived before it's too late?

VisiCalc demoed today in 1979

May 12th, 2011 11:42 AM
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I love VisiCalc. The world's first electronic spreadsheet was also one of my first computer games. Although an Apple II booted without a floppy still had access to Applesoft BASIC, that environment expected precise input, rewarding creativity with SYNTAX ERROR. Cursor movement was also limited, with text appearing on consecutive lines only. VisiCalc, by contrast, not only let me type words and numbers, but I could put them anywhere on the screen! It was a great introduction to the power of personal computing.

The world was introduced to that potential 32 years ago today, when VisiCalc received its first public demonstration at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. It set the accounting world on fire and is often considered one of the first "killer apps", warranting the Apple II a place in business. Reports I Programmer: "People bought personal computer simply to run VisiCalc. At its peak, it sold 2 million copies at $150 per copy in 12 months."

VisiCalc

Image courtesy Apple II History

Although not viable as a modern business tool, VisiCalc continues to be used and discussed. A Windows-compatible version, available as a free download from Dan Bricklin's Web site, allowed me to introduce this revolutionary program to a new generation when I, as a high school teacher, spent an hour teaching a class of 16-year-olds how to use it. There were many utterances of frustration as they struggled to understand why the mouse — which didn't exist for the Apple II when VisiCalc debuted — wouldn't work.

Aside from the program, the man behind the machine, Dan Bricklin, also remains a visible entity. His history is as fascinating as the modern insights he offers on the evolution and changes in personal computing. In this recent ITworld follow-up to Susan Lammers' 1986 book Programmers at Work, he offers several reflections, such as on the evolution of programming:

People are writing their own programs. Anybody who uses a spreadsheet is writing their own programs; it's just that the language is different now…. We're just making the users do more and more of the programming themselves, but they don't know it. Using different style sheets with Microsoft Word is doing programming; using spreadsheets is doing programming.

Those interested in seeing where Dan Bricklin has taken software development in the last 32 years can check out his iPad application, Note Taker HD, courtesy his company, the Software Garden, or watch him on Triangulation tonight at 7 PM EDT.

(Hat tip to Mitch Wagner)