TMO Interviews Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc Fame, Part II

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

Continued from Part I.

Dave Hamilton: Tell us about the early days of the Macintosh.

Dan Bricklin: We were there when the Mac came out and we released, under Software Arts, TK Solver — which we ported to the Mac. That’s because we used a “write once, run everywhere” language. So we put that on the original Mac when it came out. At Slate we shipped a Newton app, then later I moved on to the iPhone and now the iPad: Note Taker HD.

DH: Let’s talk about Note Taker HD a little bit. What was the development process? Was it something you decided to make for you?

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DB: Yes and no. What I did was…I was really into phones, I had one of the first Treos, and I was working with one of the early BackBerrys, doing Google queries with it and writing about what its like to be connected. So I’ve been following this whole thing. Then I had a Palm Pre, and I was going to start writing code for it — Javascript seemed like the natural thing, but there was no SDK to help me do what I wanted.

What I wanted was…just to be able to scribble down a telephone number. So when someone says by number is 617…and so on, one can just scribble it down rather than punch little keys and maybe make a mistake. So because I was involved with ink-based apps before, I said, okay, let’s build an ink-based app for the iPhone. I read a book on how to develop for iOS and thought, this looks easy enough. I read the book in September, and by the end of November I had a company called Software Garden and iPhone app called Note Taker.

That was a year and a half ago. And it did okay for awhile. And then the iPad came out. So I thought, let’s try it in compatibility mode. It came out lousy! So I took the code and refactored it, turned it into two windows and created Note Taker HD. People loved it! But…then they started asking for features, and I ended up adding this feature and that feature. I’ve been dong nothing but working on that since.

DH: Great!

DB: People love it. Medical students are using it. Lawyers are using it. So let me tell you what happend. We needed the floors redone in our house. So we’re out of the house, for the weekend, and I get an e-mail, just after the release came out (you never know when Apple is going to do the release), from a medical student who says that part of the app is running really slow. We check it, and sure enough, oh my god, there’s a few lines of code we’re gonna have to change. So I’m going to have to make this change, sitting in a hotel room on a Mac tethered to a Nexus One. So I’m doing development and testing and sending beta versions to people…from the hotel room.

DH: Wow. If that isn’t a sign of the times, right?

DB: Of course, the first people who told me about the problem were in Germany — because of the time difference.

DH: Of course! They’re up earlier!

DB: It’s just an incredible world. When you have that many users, you listen to them and you try to do what they ask. And I’m doing tech support right from here [WWDC].

So it came originally from what I needed. But now there are all these people who want to go paperless and it morphed. And they don’t want to lose anything because they’re using the iPad. They want it to look as good as when they used paper. I mean, if you look at the samples of what people do at, it looks like they took all these great pens and wrote this incredible stuff — and that’s normal for my users.

People do these crib sheets. You know, when they only have one page and they have to cram everything in. I get calls at 11:00 at night: “It’s not taking ink anymore!” They have to be writing incredibly small to hit the max of 100,000 points. So I tell them, output it as a PDF, then import, and continue annotating. They say, “Thank you! I have to have this by eight o’clock tomorrow morning!”

Another thing I’ve seen: contractors use it to mark up blueprints. And get signed contracts. I sign contracts on my iPad all the time. Also, I have these smart shapes, and I give you the ability to draw whatever you want along with shapes and pictures. On the iPad 2, people take pictures of a whiteboard presentation, and then they can annotate the photo. People routinely take notes in meetings and export as a PDF. Or students will mark up the PDFs that the professors give them. One thing my app will let you do is insert blank pages between the PDF pages for notes. Most apps won’t let you do that.

In the next release, if all goes well, you’ll be able to staple together pages from multiple PDFs: a page from this one and a page from that one and so on. Anyway, people keep asking: can I do such and such? And I think… that’s a good idea. That’s this ecosystem. You’re so close to your customers. But the only way customers can come to you is via e-mail because Apple does’t give us the tools to do a lot of things. It’s a blessing and a curse.

And the 30 percent that Apple takes? For a small developer, it’s not a problem compared to the old days when you went through SoftSell. They took 30 percent as well, but we also had inventory costs and stuff like that. So what I’ve seen is that the [App Store] prices are lower but the volumes are higher. The fact that there are very few options for marketing is…tough, but I’m assuming that other ecosystems will provide alternatives. We’ll see if Apple wants to remain in a narrow type of culture. I’d also like to see more sharing amongst applications.

DH: I don’t think we’re going to see that.

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DB: I saw some good things so far where apple is improving our ability there, some of the announcements were cool, like AirPlay mirroring but I was really hoping that Apple would improve the integration across applications. Because the big thing you want on a personal device is the ability to mesh data in various ways. A lot of us are being forced to build Swiss Army knives, and you’d rather not have to do that. We can’t innovate in that area. But they’re giving us some stuff, we’ll see how much today and tomorrow. And of couse, Android already has it. Microsoft provides it because corporations need that data sharing. So there’s some technical balance amongst the different ecosystems.

DH: Right, and I note that the new notification system is taken right from Android, swiping down from the top.

DB: And in some sense, just like WebOS. It’s the same gesture.

DH: It’s good to see Apple borrowing, within their own constraints — like how they did multi-tasking.

DB: Of course.

DH: I know we need to get off to the sessions, but is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you’d like to add?

DB: I think it’s really cool to see these advances in personal computing and the acceptance in the general population. Things that we dreamed about but couldn’t do with the older hardware are possible now. For example, gaming has driven the development of these incredible graphics chips.

I like Apple’s approach to the cloud. The idea is store and forward, not long term storage. But you better put it on a local machine and move it ahead yourself. It’s good that Apple didn’t say, “We’ll store it for you forever.”

I have a video of Alan Kay’s original vision of the DynaBook back in the mid 1960s — which looks exactly like an iPad — because it’s the size of a book. And now we’re actually doing it thanks to advances in hardware. That’s really cool. We had the vision back then, we just couldn’t do it because of the hardware. Moore’s law hadn’t kicked in. Another interesting thing is the software. We’re using a 20 year old language, Objective-C, on a 30 year old operating system, UNIX.

So if I could talk to Steve [Jobs], I’d thank him for hanging in there and doing the iPad. You know, from an Apple viewpoint, it was hanging in there, deferred to the iPhone, as the stories go. The wanted to do the iPad first, but they had to wait until all the pieces were there. It’s like how they had to build the Lisa before they could build the Mac. So I’d like to say to Apple, thank you for doing the iPad. And I’m just happy that I’m a piece of it with an app that thousands and thousands of people love.

DH: That’s awesome! Thank you for your time, Dan.