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Dan Bricklin

Like many computer pioneers, Dan Bricklin grew frustrated with the way things were. In 1978 he invented VisiCalc, a simple way to do complex spreadsheets, and the world beat a path to not only his door, but also the door of Apple Computer.

Bricklin was born in 1951 in Philadelphia and grew up in this city where the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) had introduced the world to the computer age. In 1969 he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study mathematics, but in his junior year he switched majors from math to computer science. While at MIT he worked in the Laboratory for Computer Science, where he helped design an on-line calculator and wrote programming to implement the APL language. There he became friends with Bob Frankston, a man who would be very influential in Dan Bricklin's future.

Following his graduation from MIT in 1973, Dan Bricklin worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) where he wrote programming for an interface between newswire services and typesetters and wrote one-fourth of DEC's first word processing program, WPS-8. In 1976 he left DEC and worked for a short time for FasFax, a cash register manufacturing company. In 1977 he returned to school to begin work on a masters degree in business administration at the Harvard Business School.

It was as a business student that Bricklin's frustration began to show. Having worked on programming for the on-line calculator and the word processing program for DEC, he understood how useful a computer could be in business, but his classroom experience also showed him their limitations and inefficiencies.

At that time, students had to learn to perform calculations for business spread-sheets by hand; inserting new figures for everything from labor costs to shipping, then manually recalculating the effect that each change had on the bottom line. The process was tedious and every new calculation was an opportunity for mistakes that could lead to serious business errors.

Out of his frustration at the task and his knowledge that there had to be a better way to do it, Bricklin began to create a software program that would do for numbers what word processing did for words -- enable the user to insert and delete elements and see an immediate change in the results.

To discourage him from wasting his time working on a software program that wouldn't sell, one of his professors referred him to Dan Flystra, an alumni of Harvard who owned Personal Software, a software publishing company. Although the two men did meet, they didn't talk about Bricklin's idea. Bricklin joined up with Bob Frankston, his friend from MIT and together they began to turn Bricklin's rudimentary idea into a commercially viable product. In 1978 Bricklin was working on the functional design and documentation, Frankston was writing the programming, and Personal Software began handling the marketing. In 1979, Bricklin and Frankston started their own company, Software Arts, Inc.

They bought computer time on a time-share basis, with Frankston writing the program at night when the rates were cheaper and Bricklin continuing to work on his MBA during the day. Many decisions had to be made about the capability of the final product, but the driving force was to keep the program simple. The final version was 25K long. After discussing several names for the new program, they chose VisiCalc. Although Bricklin was able to amaze his professors with the output of VisiCalc, selling it to Apple or Atari proved difficult.

In June 1979, Bricklin received his MBA from Harvard and in July Software Arts secured a loan and hired its first employee. By the fall of 1979 a version of VisiCalc was ready for the Apple II and they started writing versions for the Tandy TRS-80, Commodore PET, and Atari 800. In October of that year, VisiCalc hit the shelves of computer stores, selling for $100.

VisiCalc had a major impact in two ways. The first was to allow businesses to redistribute costs and revenues on a trial basis to see how the changes would affect the bottom line -- and get the results immediately. It reduced the cost of doing spread sheets by 80 percent and let small businesses make decisions based on the kind of sophisticated financial projections previously available to only large companies with mainframe or mini computers. The second impact of VisiCalc was on the computer industry itself. For the fledgling Apple Computer company, it was a tremendous boost because the first version of VisiCalc was written to run on the Apple II, and people bought the computer just so they could run VisiCalc. The reputation of VisiCalc as a serious business application did much to establish the PC as a legitimate business computer.

By 1981, VisiCalc was available for Hewlett-Packard computers and the new IBM PC and sales were hitting 30,000 units per month. In November 1981, Bricklin was rewarded for his innovative program when the Association for Computing Machinery gave him the Grace Murray Hopper Award.

In 1982, Software Arts had revenues of $11 million and 125 employees, but like any ground-breaking idea that made money, VisiCalc began to face competition from other spreadsheet programs. In addition, the partnership between Software Arts and VisiCorp, the new name of Flystra's company, began to fall apart. In 1983, VisiCorp filed a lawsuit contending that Bricklin and Frankston had not improved VisiCalc as agreed and VisiCorp claimed rights to the program. By 1984, sales of VisiCalc had dropped to only 2,500 units per month, due in part to a new spread sheet program called Lotus 1-2-3. In 1985, Software Arts, weakened by its battle with VisiCorp, was purchased by Lotus Software.

Bricklin served as a consultant for Lotus for a short time, but by the end of 1985 he had started over, operating his new company, Software Garden, Inc., out of his home. His first product was Dan Bricklin's Demo Program, a $75 program that enabled software developers to create demonstrations of their software even before they had it completely written. Later versions of the program, titled Dan Bricklin's Demo and Demo-It, were published by Lifeboat Publishing, Inc.

Having ridden the rocket of fame and prosperity to the top, in 1985 Bricklin put his success into perspective when he said, "I'm not rich because I invented VisiCalc, but I feel that I've made a change in the world. That's a satisfaction money can't buy."

In 1992, Bricklin was not only running Software Garden but was also vice president of Slate Corporation, a company developing a pen-based program that was an advancement of the VisiCalc concept. Both Bricklin and Frankston worked for Slate, with Frankston leaving in 1992.

Bricklin continued to look at the traditional way of doing things and search for better, more efficient methods, sometimes even working on software before there was hardware that could run it. His work with the pen-based technology of Slate was an example of his ability to think beyond the constraints of reality. In 1995, Bricklin told the Los Angeles Times, "Product is my thing. I like to develop new metaphors and new ways of using computers. If there are new metaphors to be found, I won't find all of them, but I'll find some of them."

In 1995, Bricklin saw the future for computer technology in putting video on people's desks that would allow them to have face-to-face meetings with customers, service providers, and associates.

Dan Bricklin's ability to apply his knowledge and experience to problems in a unique way and create simple solutions is perhaps his greatest contribution to computer science. In an age when software seems to get more complex, Dan Bricklin's programs, such as OverAll, AtHand, and timeLOCK, are refreshing.

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