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)

Solo climbers

November 30th, 2015 9:58 AM
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Most Apple historians know the name Jean-Louis Gassée: former Director of European Operations at Apple Computer, founder of Be Inc., and the mysterious informant who told John Sculley not to get on a plane to China, lest he be ousted by Steve Jobs.

But Gassée's contributions to technology don't end in the 1980s or even 1990s: he writes a fascinating blog at The Monday Note, drawing upon his experiences and perspectives in the industry. This past summer, he penned a post of particular relevance to Apple II users. "A Salute To Solo Programmers" pays homage to the days when a single developer could create an entire program:

Once upon a time, we were awestruck by the "solo climber", the programmer who could single-handedly write a magnum opus on a barebones machine such as the Apple ][ with its 64 kilobytes of memory (yes, kilo — not mega, let alone gigabytes), and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz (again, mega not giga).

Gassée goes on to offer examples of , Bill Budge, Dan Bricklin, and Paul Lutus, who worked independently to create programs that changed the world. It's a phenomenon that's unlikely today:

Operating systems have become so sophisticated, so tentacular that a single human being can’t possibly internalize their workings and write application code that keeps us users walking on water. There’s no place for a 2015 Paul Lutus.

I encountered a similar sentiment at KansasFest 2013 when I interviewed Eric Shepherd, former senior technical writer for Be Inc.:

I don't know how much of this is just wistful reminiscing for simpler times. As Gassée later acknowledges, modern computers are not only capable of greater feats of engineering, but they still offer wonderful opportunities for solo development. Access to programming tools and resources is unprecedented, with classes being offered for free at local libraries, universities, and makerspaces, including to underserved communities and demographics. Motivated parties can build anything as simple as a Twitter bot to as complex as as a best-selling video game with a team of one.

I don't believe development has outgrown the boundaries of the Apple II — it's expanded them. But the time when "solo climbers" were the rule rather than the exception was unique, and we have much to thank those pioneers who led the way.

(Hat tip to Thomas Compter)

VisiCalc review

June 25th, 2012 8:30 PM
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I have a soft spot in my heart for VisiCalc, though perhaps more as an idea than a piece of software. I don't advocate using the world's first-ever electronic spreadsheet in modern times, except perhaps as a learning tool or torture device. But with this the software that cemented the Apple II's place in business having been invented practically in my own backyard (Massachusetts) by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, I can't help but have a sense of pride and nostalgia for the little productivity tool.

YouTube artist Brian Picchi is apparently also a fan, as he's recently deviated from his usual computer game reviews to spend five minutes with VisiCalc:

Half historical narrative and half review, Picchi's video is an effective summary of the key points of VisiCalc's significance and function. I didn't remember VisiCalc's formulae for equations, so it was interesting to see that they aren't much different from the syntax used in AppleWorks or Excel.

I could've interviewed Brian for more details about his video, but since he often reads this blog, I'll ask him to leave a comment: Where did you get your v1.37 VisiCalc, Brian?

For more non-gaming critiques from Picchi, check out his top ten television shows cancelled after one season.

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)