TMO Interviews Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc Fame, Part I

At WWDC this week, TMO’s Dave Hamilton arranged to interview Dan Bricklin. Mr. Bricklin was the co-creator of VisiCalc, the killer app, the first spreadsheet program, that put the Apple II on the personal computing map back in 1979. In Part I, Mr. Bricklin talks about the magic of the iPad, gestures, the power and control it gives users, and the kinds of changes it brings.

Dave Hamilton: So what are you thinking about these days?

Dan Bricklin: The iPad.

DH: Of course! Tell me more.

DB: The magic of the iPad is not that Apple magically writes code. There are other things that make it magical. I believe it’s magical, but I believe the magic is in the control it gives the user.

DH: How so?

Dan Bricklin

DB: I was in line yesterday for the keynote. At 2:30 in the morning actually. I ended up on row nine, which was really good. I also got to say “hi” to Steve. Anyway, I was sitting with some guys from Microsoft it turned out. One was from Bing and two rom MSN. And the guy from Bing is showing me the Bing stuff and the others are showing me some stuff they’re doing. And what I saw, all those UIs for swiping in an app, like you see in the Twitter app, they’re all doing that stuff. So… why are we doing all those things? That’s what’s magical.

The magical thing is that you’re in control of the device. In ways that we didn’t have before. Control your reading. Control your viewing. That’s the magical part. You are the magician.

What I’m finding is that people expect enormous control. The iPhone gave you a little bit of control — which is why a small space was able to do an awful lot. But, with the iPad, you have a lot of space. For a lot of control. At the same time you’re seeing things. And makes it different how you read. And you can’t just throw any old thing up here. You have to give it a user interface. And we’re still experimenting with that. Just like [Microsoft’s] Kinect. They’re still experimenting, right?

DH: Right.

DB: They’re starting late with that experimentation, unfortunately. They didn’t open source it early enough.

DH: Yeah, but they’re Microsoft. But they’re getting there.

DB: Now, from what we saw yesterday, Apple is starting to add even more gestures [in Lion]. You’re going to have to learn “sleight of hand.” But, they’re not discoverable.

DH: That’s going to be interesting to see … how the users adapt to that. I think developers will dive all over it.

DB: Yeah, but developers did Emacs.* They did CTRL-ALT-Coke bottle. You know?

DH: That’s the perfect analogy there.

DB: On the other hand, young people, and eventually old people, learn fast. It’s basically like Morse code. Obviously we’re going to learn those gestures. But gestures do have their issues because it’s hard to differentiate between gestures and other things we want to do. And one can question what gestures will substitute for scroll bars and things like that. And you expect variety combined with disambiguation. We end up giving you more control. You’re learning to do the sleight of hand. You’re becoming more of a magician. Eventually, it will feel natural. Just like the pinching gesture.

DH: Right. Right!

DB: I’m thinking about the publishing industry. In the past, they had to learn all the ins and outs of paper, ligatures, and margins and layouts and all that. Now we have new issues to deal with. So, yesterday they showed off the new stuff in Xcode for languages. This isn’t confidential. The emphasis is on the fluid nature of things. Things that adjust. Like the rotation of the iPad. So we have animations we have to take into account. So a print person now has to think about animations.

DH: Something they never had to think about before.

DB: The New York Times is making the coolest transition over the last few years. They’ve gone from being a newspaper to one of the best users of Flash. They’re becoming a video producer. The Whitehouse app is like that too. So people are starting to expect that and understand that. And now, because these devices are becoming ubiquitous, throughout all society, we have a really new tool for control.

Dan Bricklin 2

DH: It occurs to me… you have a very unique path, developing for Apple products — you co-developed VisiCalc…

DB: Yep. I wrote the original prototype in BASIC on the Apple II. And I also wrote a little bit of the actual code. Bob Frankston wrote the bulk of it back in 1979. That was indeed the first killer app for the PC world. The personal computing world.

So, we’re still in the personal computing world, but Apple is demoting the PC. And these devices we have now are more powerful than any [old] PC we used to have. And the resolution of an iPhone is so much higher … think about the original IBM PC.

DH: It’s very interesting. I have a 1,000 times more power in my pocket with my iPhone that I did with my old computers.

DB: If Apple would let us, but Apple doesn’t like us to do things like that, we could probably build an [Intel] 8080 emulator for iOS and run the old IBM PC things like VisiCal on the iPhone.

DH: I’m sure we could. With room to spare. And it would run faster than it did on the original PCs!

In Part II, Mr. Bricklin talks about apps he wrote in the early days for the Mac and now the iPhone and the iPad.


* Emacs is a UNIX text editor that makes heavy use of the CTRL key for commands.