Dan Bricklin (inventor of PC spreadsheet) on technology

A couple of weeks ago, Wiley asked if I'd like a review copy of Dan Bricklin's 'Bricklin on Technology' book. Normally, I'd say "not on your Nelly" because I know what a chore book reviewing can be. However, I was at the West Coast Computer Faire in March 1980 when Bricklin collected his first award for VisiCalc – the pioneering spreadsheet for the PC. I was also a fairly avid user of his 'Demo' program a few years later. Even though I don't think we met, (unless it was in Zaragoza a couple of years ago), I felt connected, not least because I also developed and published PC software for many years, but without his degree of visibility or success.
When the book arrived, I winced because it's more or less 500 pages long. Unless you're a commuter or you don't get much sleep, how do you find time to read that much?
Anyway, the book was enjoyable at a couple of levels and a disappointment at another. Enjoyable because it peeled off and examined the layers of thinking that went into various products and issues. Bricklin leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of insight. The transcript of an 85-minute interview with wiki inventor Ward Cunningham is a classic in this respect. (It was 37 pages.) I'd rather Bricklin had identified and pulled out the key elements but then, I suspect, this would have been an editorial step too far for him. He would have had to impose his own interpretations on the conversation, rather than laying it out in full in front of his audience.
You will get insight if you read this book. Insight into what brought us to where we are and a few glimmers into how we might get to where we're going.
The other enjoyable bit for me, which you won't all share, is that I've met (albeit fleetingly) many of the people mentioned in the book, worked with many of the products and written about many of the issues. Bricklin and I even started programming at the same time – early 1966, and we've both tried to take the user perspective in our work. The book triggered many long-dormant memories and reawakened many old feelings, especially in the late 70's/early 80's as we all groped our way through the chaos of the emerging microcomputer/PC business. This is not really a reason for buying the book because Bricklin's chosen subjects seem, in the main, to be serendipitous. A comprehensive history book it is not, although it is a useful addition to the history of the IT world of the late 20th century.
The book is a compilation of old blog posts, essays and transcripts of recordings, loosely arranged around topics which Bricklin finds important, all topped and tailed with narrative from the perspective of 2007/8. As he says in the conclusion, "On any topic you can explore deeply and find nuance", which more or less sets the tone for the book. He does dig deep, he records faithfully and, at times you want him to make his point more quickly. But maybe that's not what he's trying to do. Perhaps he's trying to help the reader understand the nuances, so that they can move forward with their own thinking. I don't know.
Most of his topics have some resonance today, although much of the writing has been overtaken by events or absorbed into the mainstream. The chapters will give you a clue: What Will People Pay For?; The Recording Industry and Copying; Leveraging the Crowd; Cooperation; Blogging and Podcasting; What Tools We Should Be Developing?; Tablet and Gestural Computing; The long term; Historical Information about the PC; Interview with the Inventor of the Wiki; and VisiCalc. It's a ramble round the industry and round the inside of Bricklin's head. His invention of VisiCalc gave him a passport to go where he likes when he likes and meet who he likes. And that's what he's done and, in this book, shared it with us.
My approach, if you're thinking of buying it, would be to say "I'm getting a good 300-page book, I'll just need to pick which 300 of the 500 pages are of most relevance to me." It's a bit like his approach to software – give the user the tools and let them choose how best to use them.

Amazon is selling it in the UK for £10.99

4 thoughts on “Dan Bricklin (inventor of PC spreadsheet) on technology

  1. David,
    Thanks for the review (and for taking the time to read the whole book and then write it)! One of my early editors reminded me that I, too, had been saying that each person will find 300 pages that are for them, but that it’s a different set for each. I’m finding that it is indeed true as I hear from people which parts are their favorites. As I wrote in “Turning My Blog Into A Book” (http://www.bricklin.com/bontech/blog-to-book.html): “At least with the way the book is formatted, if any part of it gets boring or too long it is easy see where to skip ahead to a new section.” In Chapter 1 I wrote: “In many cases the essays and posts are like short stories, and you should feel free to skip one.” I especially tried to help in the Ward Cunningham interview, where I added sub-headings and footnotes, and even bolded some major points in case you are skimming through.
    As you surmise, I did try to help the reader understand nuances, and I indeed had a goal of trying to help them move ahead in their own thinking. That’s one reason I left so many things complete and relatively raw. As I stated in Chapter 1, this is like case material used in a business school class, and not a list of points to memorize or “…a lean coherent, clean story tuned to the one pedagogic issue.”
    I’m glad you found a lot of the material enjoyable. Many readers have told me that the old stories bring back memories, even if only of related experiences in their own lives. I am lucky that I get to have some amazing experiences and meet some amazing people, and I want other people to have as much a feeling of “being there with me” as I can.
    Finally, perhaps we did meet in Zaragoza if you were at the “Innovate! Europe ’05” conference. I wrote it up a bit about 4 years ago: http://danbricklin.com/log/2005_05_19.htm#zaragoza
    -DanB

  2. Hi Dan. Thanks for responding. At least I was more or less on target with my comments. The problem with reviewing is that you can’t read a book like a regular reader in case you miss something. And, yes, I appreciate that you did break up the Cunningham interview – perhaps I should have mentioned that.
    Re: Zaragoza – if that picture was taken at the castle where we were addressed by some dignitaries, I think you can just see a bit of my grey hair in the background. I caught you briefly at lunch on the last day. Sadly, I moved house since then and had to jettison a lot of my notebooks, otherwise I’d have looked up my notes from that time. Doesn’t look like I blogged that particular encounter.
    Good luck with the book.

  3. David: That was taken at the fancy old building with the mayor, as I remember, so I guess that’s you. Funny the things you find in a blog when you look back.

  4. Yes. Only yesterday I had a call from one of the staff on Personal Computer World magazine (which I edited 79-81). He wanted to know why the Sinclair QL cover story featured a chimpanzee. I remembered that the ‘chimp covers’ started with my review of the ZX81, but I had no idea why. All I knew was that we used to give articles to the cover artist and let them come up with the picture. I assumed I must have mentioned ‘monkey’ or ‘chimp’ in the article, but I couldn’t think in what context.
    Fortunately (like you) a load of my old stuff is online and searchable here: http://www.greybeards.co.uk/search.html so I looked up the article, searched its content, and found this:
    “…the keyboard is formed by an underprinted plastic membrane which is everything-proof (water, chemicals, Coca-Cola, cigarette ash, monkeys, editors, etc.)”
    Mystery solved after 28 years. Hurrah for the web.

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