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Spreadsheet's Creator Goes Back to the Future

Dan Bricklin, creator of VisiCalc and SocialCalc
Dan Bricklin, creator of VisiCalc and SocialCalc
There aren't that many great second acts in high tech -- at least not wildly successful ones. But here's Dan Bricklin giving it a shot some three decades after VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, debuted exactly 30 years ago in 1979 for the Apple II.

SocialCalc is far from Bricklin's second product: He's been plenty busy in the intervening years, but SocialCalc revisits the program that made him and co-creator Bob Frankston famous. VisiCalc is considered by many the first program that gave a large number of business and professionals a reason to buy a personal computer.

Bricklin calls SocialCalc the first distributed spreadsheet program because it's designed for collaboration. SocialCalc's actually been available as a beta since earlier this year, but the final version is being released today by Bricklin's publishing partner Socialtext, which is offering it as an option to users of its enterprise Wiki platform. The day also happens to mark the 30th anniversary of VisiCalc's release.

"When Excel first came out, Microsoft said every new platform needs a spreadsheet -- just as Lotus 1-2-3 was first for the early PCs, Excel was for graphical user interfaces," Bricklin told InternetNews.com. "In a social world, the wiki replaces the word processor. So that is the spreadsheet metaphor there? That's what we've come up with."

Bricklin calls SocialCalc "a very good, basic spreadsheet" that should meet the needs of most users.

"It doesn't have some of the more complex stuff like programming languages and database access yet, but it's pretty powerful," he said. "And there are all sorts of visual looks you can do to the cells."

Bricklin is clear he doesn't think SocialCalc is going to topple the market-dominating Microsoft Excel, but he does see it as "a good solution for certain things.

"If you're trying to get a roll-up of what everyone is doing or trying to get a list updated, it's ridiculous to mail around an Excel spreadsheet attachment," he said. "It's also great for a branch office to maintain information that can be kept up to date."

wikiCalc roots

SocialCalc actually has its roots and core engine in wikiCalc, an open source, spreadsheet-meets-wiki Bricklin released earlier, and which has kind of taken on a life of its own. Among other developments, Bricklin said backers of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative are using wikiCalc to help teach micro-finance in developing countries.

Socialtext did the integration work of making SocialCalc part of the Socialtext enterprise software. Each worksheet is like a separate wiki page that can be shared with revision control, tagging, authorization and other features. It also operates securely behind a company's firewall.

"SocialCalc enables large and distributed teams to collaborate across spreadsheets, as an alternative to playing e-mail volleyball with Excel attachments," Socialtext CEO Eugene Lee said in a blog post. "Many of our customers have already been having great success using SocialCalc in conjunction with our Socialtext Workspaces (wikis) and Socialtext Signals (microblogging)."

SocialCalc in action

Lee cited one early SocialCalc user, Meredith Corporation, the publisher of a number of nationally known magazines including Better Homes & Garden and Ladies' Home Journal.

SocialCalc at work. Click to enlarge.
Source: Socialtext
Before adopting SocialCalc, marketing teams at several Meredith magazines inputted data from new subscriber campaigns into their own spreadsheets. Then, they would e-mail them to Meredith's consumer marketing department, where they would be laboriously compiled into another master spreadsheet. With SocialCalc, that data can be shared online and in a central location. Meredith said SocialCalc also enables flexible roll-up reporting of key indicators for executives.

"I used to get 10 e-mails a day from different people with these reports," said Dave Ball, Meredith's vice president of consumer marketing. "Now, with SocialCalc, I can go in at one point in the day and see what's going on in all our active campaigns right now. It helps us distribute information and knowledge faster, so we can react more quickly."

SocialCalc is available now for trial and for current customers in the October Appliance release. It costs $3 per user per month. New customers who purchase the full Socialtext platform in 2009 get SocialCalc without charge for 2010. Current customers that participated in the beta program get SocialCalc without charge for 2009.

"I'm really happy to have this as a real solid product out there," Bricklin said.