David Tebbutt, Teblog
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