Q&A

Pioneer's Prerogative: Dan Bricklin

Father of the spreadsheet, Dan Bricklin, talks about Microsoft, open source and his latest venture.

Some 27 years after he delivered VisiCalc, the fledgling microcomputer industry's first killer application, software pioneer Dan Bricklin is back at it. Bricklin, president of his one-programmer company, Software Garden Inc., is on the verge of shipping wikiCalc. The upcoming product is a Web-authoring tool for creating and maintaining Web pages with multi-person edit capabilities that uses-you guessed it-a spreadsheet metaphor.

Bricklin recently sat down with Editor Ed Scannell of sister publication Redmond and Redmond Developer News Founding Editor Michael Desmond to talk about his latest project and offer his views on a wide range of topics.

Why did you go open source with wikiCalc?
Most of the development was done on Windows-based PCs using an Active States version of Perl. One of the advantages of open source is that the developers who want to make changes can do so and not have to return those changes to anyone else. They want to take something that works and be able to make the modifications they need and to experiment and learn inexpensively. A lot of people start experimenting with something that they can run at home where it doesn't cost the corporation anything.

We see dynamic language authors being snapped up by Sun, Microsoft and Google. Could this stunt innovation somewhat?
There are all sorts of important things that we depend on that are running on these scripting languages from Perl to Python. We saw IBM starting to put money into Linux, and that's good. So when some players decide it's in their interest to put money into these platforms, that's good. It also proves to people who are saying you can't make money at open source.

Open source has changed software development-breaking centralized management and tightly woven processes. Are there lessons there in corporate development?
That's what IBM says. They've learned from the open source development process using wikis. They're using wikis in-house in collaboration with other developers. Within a corporation you can really be less worried about the proprietary nature of your software, especially if you can keep the data to yourself.

You've mentioned that Ray Ozzie has been a major open software contributor at Microsoft. Can you elaborate?
He's added things to RSS, like how to do synchronization in RSS. He proposed this interesting way of being able to do a type of paste with a clipboard in a browser. And he released it with Creative Commons saying, 'do with it what you want.' We were all thrilled to see this. Ray is experimenting and trying to learn about this area.

Dan Bricklin "Microsoft is certainly not a unified beast. Anyone who's worked with them as a developer knows they're a real double-edged sword."
Dan Bricklin, President, Software Garden Inc.

Of course he's balanced by Craig Mundie on the other side, who's been carrying the torch against open source, especially the GPL. Ray is clearly from the proprietary world like I am, but on the other hand he's been involved in the academic world like I was, and is very intrigued about understanding things about sharing.

Microsoft is exhibiting more curiosity about open source, but is this healthy for the industry in general?
They are clearly trying to understand this world. Microsoft is certainly not a unified beast. Anyone who's worked with them as a developer knows they're a real double-edged sword. For ISVs, they will help you with great tools and put you in their booth at shows, and publicize your stuff, and then they will try to beat the hell out of you competitively and put you out of business. Those are two separate parts of the company and they both do the best job they can. So it's up to you to do the best job you can, and if you do a good enough job, they won't knock you down.

As Gates once said, 'it's all just code.'
Well, who said the way he learned to code was to read the code of others? Bill Gates. He did that by literally looking in the dumpsters at Harvard for the listings of the DEC operating system. And what did he do at Microsoft? He got a lot of great programmers and they all read each other's code. Well, this is what open source is all about. He believes in that.

I wouldn't be surprised if we see Bill getting involved on the open source side because it could be of help to him with some of the issues he's trying to deal with to win against these horrible diseases and in areas like illiteracy.

About the Author

Ed Scannell is the editor of Redmond magazine.

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