Spreadsheet Pioneer Bricklin Sees Gold In Problem-Solving Tech Innovation

Dan Bricklin, the legendary force behind the first electronic spreadsheet, retains his passion for technology but stressed that its practical application is critical to success. Though it's fine to have the latest and greatest software or hardware, it won't be a winner if you can't demonstrate to users what issue it addresses, Bricklin told several hundred solution providers Tuesday night during the eighth annual CRN Industry Hall of Fame ceremony at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

"I showed VisiCalc to business school professors, and they didn't get it until I showed them how it worked for their problem," said Bricklin, CEO of Software Garden, a Newton, Mass.-based software company he founded in 1985. "So you have to know their problem."

The key is to create general-purpose tools and then tailor "the ends to meet diverse needs" Bricklin said. Often, the person doing the tailoring is a specialist--a VAR or a solution provider, he said.

VisiCalc, the electronic spreadsheet created by Bricklin and Bob Frankston, is viewed as the killer app that helped launch the Apple II and, hence, the PC revolution. "When we sold VisiCalc, we could show people exactly their situation, and they got excited about it," Bricklin said. "When they saw it could do in 15 minutes what it took weeks to do if they were doing time-sharing, they could buy the computer and the daisy-wheel printer and pay for the whole thing in a few weeks. When it's a no brainer, that makes it a lot easier."

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The advent of near-universal Internet access, technology standards to assure interoperability and wireless connections could open up a range of huge opportunities for those who understand what people need to do their jobs, Bricklin said. For example, the emergence of innovative, tiny devices--even the consumer-oriented Apple iPod--could spur business-productivity improvements, he said.

In addition, the notion of "pod casting," or saving audio content to Web sites for future downloads, could save time and money in training, Bricklin said. People could download content to their devices and listen to it when they're not connected, such as when they're exercising, he added.

Bricklin kicked off his speech by videotaping the crowd. "When you're a Web logger like I am, you never know what part of your life is worth putting online," he quipped.