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

Dealing with social media addiction

The internet is silting up with ego-driven dross. It’s little wonder that the anti-network-neutrality brigade would like to turn it into freeways and side streets, depending on willingness to pay. And, equally, it’s no wonder that the network neutrality supporters want everything to stay the same and for the pipes to be fattened ad infinitum.

With limitless capacity and fixed price access, anyone who can afford a few dollars a month is able to promulgate whatever they want out to an unsuspecting world. They could do it with blogs, podcasts, videocasts, social networking sites, Second Life or Twitter.

It doesn’t matter that most of the utterances are ignored by most of the world. For most people the joy lies, I suspect, in the uttering. It’s like vanity publishing. Everyone has a story and this is a way to get it out.

Most people like making connections and ‘friendships’. By participating in a social site like Twitter, they can delude themselves about their connectedness. Enough of the digital glitterati hang out there to make it worth dropping by and picking up what these A-listers are up to. Even if it is as boring as ‘stuck in traffic on 101’, or whatever.

If we were able to really restrict our appetite for social media consumption to our genuine friends and work colleagues, for example, then we’d probably derive a lot of value from it. I wouldn’t mind knowing what my four analyst colleagues at Freeform Dynamics were up to at any time although I really wouldn’t welcome a continous stream of the stuff.

And this is the issue really. If you get involved in any big way with blogs, podcasts, videocasts and social sites, it can be like a drug. But this drug doesn’t so much mess with your head as mess with your time. "I’ll just see what [name your own guru] is up to at the moment" and that’s another chunk of your life thrown away, never to be recovered. It’s even worse with videos, which are becoming all the rage in Twitterati circles. A bit of puff and a tiny URL and, if you’re not careful, you end up watching some nonentity on an ego trip.

I think we ought to start accounting for our time in the same way that lawyers do. And then measure the value extracted from each social media engagement. Did it entertain? Did it educate? Did it inform? Choose your own criteria and monitor your online activity. If you’re dissatisfied with the outcome, ask yourself what else you would have spent that time doing. If the answer to that is ‘something better’ then you have a problem. Only by recognising the consequences of the addiction can you form your strategy for beating it.

PS For social accounting purposes, that probably took you 135 seconds to read.

Social media at a glance (well 57 readable pages anyway)

Lee Hopkins and Trevor Cook have written the second edition of their Social Media eBook. If you feel uncertain about the SM (no, not that one!) world, then this will help. It’s a 57-page pdf but it’s an easy and informative read.

Don’t be put off by its Australianness or its datedness in the early parts, it probably needs a slight update when it comes to mentions of things like Writely, which was renamed last October. The value of this .pdf eBook is that it’s running you through the principles of the new web world.

The wiki bit is the least insightful by these two excellent writers, but they compensate by examining real projects so you should get an idea of their relevance to you.

Nothing is beyond reach: Facebook, Twitter, Jaiku, Second Life … Offhand, I couldn’t think of anything significant that they left out. (The providers of the services that weren’t mentioned will probably disagree. They can chuck in their comments on this blog if they like.)

Take a look. It costs nothing apart from half an hour or so of your time.

Social Computing in more than 22 seconds

After the earlier discussion about whether to put my presentation online, I’ve done a half-way house thing.

Rather than having to listen to me speaking over the slides, I thought I’d put my slides and notes on Flickr.

Trails

Unlike this snail (taken from the presentation), you can zip through at whatever speed you like or pick out the pages of most interest.

If you’re unused to Flickr, move your mouse pointer to the top or bottom of the image to access the controls.

Feedback is very welcome. You know where to find me.

P.S. Before anyone says anything, my apologies for not hiding the cursor on some of the pix.

Social computing in 22 seconds

Here’s a 22-second run through of a recent presentation I created on ‘New Technologies’ – ie social software/web services etc.

Abd

I used images and everyday activities in order to build rapid bridges between the audience and the technologies. (The presentation slot was 35 minutes.) It also meant that the content and audience engagement could be flexible. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that most new developments could be slotted into the structure fairly easily.

It took a long while to prepare and it seems a shame to have given it only one outing. A friend suggested making it into a YouTube movie, but it would be fossilised in time. Not sure whether it’s a good idea or not.

Any thoughts?

Getting to grips with new technologies

Helene Blowers at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County has created a 23-step induction programme into new technologies: Blogs, Photos & Images, Mashups, RSS, Newsreaders, LibraryThing, Search, Tagging, Folksonomies, Web 2.0, Library 2.0, Wikis, Web Applications & Tools, Podcasts, Video, Downloadable audio, including eBooks.

I’ve blogged about it at IWR. If you’re unsure of any of this stuff, dive to the appropriate lesson and enjoy!

SME/SMB blogs and podcasts

A little while ago, one-time PR man and general good egg, Alex Bellinger, approached me with a view to starting a blog which specifically served small to medium businesses. We both agreed that the SME/SMB segment is ill served, yet it has millions of participants. We talked at great length before he decided to take the plunge with a ‘Small Business Blog‘ adjunct to his popular SmallBizPod podcasting site.

According to the official blurb, the blog sets out to offer "practical advice, news and insight for start-ups, small business owners and entrepreneurs".

We thought it best to get a few blogs under our belts before letting people know about it. Well, we’re on the verge of our fifth week and we all seem to be settling down together. So here goes: I write about technology stuff; Guy Clapperton writes about franchising; Sara Scott writes about marketing; and Alex Bellinger seems to write about whatever catches his eye. (We all have to be on our toes to make sure he hasn’t nicked one of our ideas.)

If you like what you see please tell others. If  you don’t, then please tell us.

Thanks. We look forward to seeing you over there.