Call him Mr. Spreadsheet

NEWTON, Mass. – A lot of people are eager to see Dan Bricklin’s latest product. It’s a new piece of software, which means there are features to program and bugs to work out. This isn’t an easy task, especially when you work alone, as he does.

And yet, sitting on a bench overlooking a lake at the end of his suburban street one fine spring day, Bricklin can afford some moments of reflection.

“When I turned 40 – and now 50 – I never had to worry about whether I’d amount to much,” he says. “The pressure is off to make something of your life.”

The biggest reason Dan Bricklin, 54, will forever be considered an unqualified success as a programmer is also the reason people have high expectations for his current endeavor, in online spreadsheets: Bricklin gave us the spreadsheet program.

This is not mere geek trivia. Before 1979, when Bricklin released the first spreadsheet, known as VisiCalc, personal computers still mainly were programming toys for hobbyists.

VisiCalc changed that. By allowing businesses and households to automate their financial management – in a layout of their own choosing, even if they had zero programming ability – Bricklin ushered the era in which personal computers would burrow deep into our everyday lives.

He also helped shape the course of history. With VisiCalc as perhaps the first true “killer app,” the seminal Apple II computer began selling well enough to awaken IBM Corp., which decided to enter the PC market. IBM tapped a scrappy Microsoft Corp. to provide the operating system, the decision that would turn Bill Gates into … well, Bill Gates.

Nowhere near those kind of riches flowed to Bricklin and his co-developer, Bob Frankston.

Software often wasn’t patented in those days, and Bricklin didn’t pursue one for VisiCalc. Before long, Bricklin saw his idea taken up by such programs as Lotus Development Corp.’s 1-2-3 and Microsoft’s Excel. In 1985, Bricklin and Frankston sold their company to Lotus, which ceased publishing VisiCalc.

Ultimately Bricklin made a living on speaking and consulting gigs and less famous creations, such as Demo, a program that let people assemble slidelike simulations of other pieces of software. More recently he has been an avid blogger and podcaster.

Even so, Bricklin will always be known as Mr. Spreadsheet, for better or worse. Which is why many people are watching closely as he updates the concept for the Web’s new era.

Many of the solitary aspects of computing – think of one person at a terminal, reading something or creating something, then perhaps sending it off to someone else – are giving way to a new ideal. Groups of people are enhancing their productivity through collaborative programs known as wikis, in which multiple people can contribute at once. That’s what puts the “wiki” in the encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Wikis “are fulfilling the long-term promise of the Web by allowing people to engage in two-way conversation,” says Joe Kraus, founder of wiki provider JotSpot Inc. “It’s enabling people to publish as easily as they can read.” Because of wikis’ flexibility, JotSpot has seen its programs adopted in such diverse settings as a movie production team, class reunion planning and 2,500 families seeking to stay organized.

Bricklin’s new project is a collaborative spreadsheet program – wikiCalc. He released a rough “alpha” version last fall and is now wrapping up a “beta” test version.

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