It’s easy to take for granted software as commonplace as the spreadsheet. Its co-inventor, Dan Bricklin, conceived of it with the simple goal of organizing words and numbers efficiently. The result was the industry-changing VisiCalc for the Apple II.
Bricklin still brings the principles of efficient organization and design simplicity to his current project, AlphaRef, a reference reader designed with tablets and phones in mind. SD Times had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him at the Android Developer Conference about the birth of the spreadsheet and his current cross-platform project.
SD Times: How did you find the inspiration to invent something as simple and functional as the spreadsheet?
Dan Bricklin: I had the right background I think. Besides having programmed as a kid, I had worked on interpreted languages, APL, BASIC and Lisp when I was at MIT. Then, at Digital Equipment Corporation, I worked on one of the early word-processing systems and went to Harvard Business School, where I learned about business.
You put all those things together, word processing with numbers for business use, and you end up with the spreadsheet. If you can program, you can actually build it. That’s where I got the inspiration for it. I prototyped it, and then my friend Bob [Frankston] programmed it because I was at school.
So it was a matter of utility?
Yes. For example, you’re in class, you do your homework, you turn it in. Then you submit it to go over it, and sure enough there’s a mistake. Now all your numbers are wrong down the line. Coming from word processing, I knew about word wrapping, where you make one change and everything related changes accordingly. That’s why I thought to do the equivalent of word wrapping for numbers.
Your current project is AlphaRef. Can you go into detail about it?
As CTO of Alpha Software, we have a system for developing business applications in HTML5 that run on mobile devices and the Web. I was helping to write the reference documentation for programming. I had no reader that made it easy to sort and sift through for my tablet. I looked at others and couldn’t find anything. There were apps for books, newspapers and so on, but reference material is different. You need to be able to jump around, recall what you read yesterday, and see what you’re reading most frequently. Traditionally you might do this on paper with bookmarks. I decided I would design that for a tablet.
Again, you were solving a utility problem.
The same thing again. I needed it, so I made it. The response has been really good, and it also shows that an HTML5 app can actually feel like a real app. We submitted them to the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store within 12 hours of each other. HTML5 is write once and run everywhere. It was wrapped in PhoneGap and easy to install.
What was behind the choice to use the King James Bible as the example?
I figured it was something that people are familiar with for different reasons. It was great for testing because there are books and chapters to illustrate the app’s functions. It was required by the Gutenberg Project that the license be included, and the license had sections and subsections too…so I got to show off the function UI a little bit there.