Dan Bricklin, ‘father of the spreadsheet,’ now tackles mobile challenges at Alpha Software

Alpha Anywhere screenshot
Alpha Anywhere screenshot

To most, Dan Bricklin may still be best known as co-inventor of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program for personal computers, back in 1979 and arguably the killer app for the Apple II — although for developers, his DEMO “software prototyping” program  may also come to mind.

Dan Bricklin, CTO, Alpha Software

As computers and the Internet have evolved, he’s continued to create innovative products for the new techno-spaces, including Trellix, and for note-taking iPad users, his highly popular NoteTaker HD program.

In early 2013, Bricklin joined Burlington, Massachusetts-based Alpha Software Corporation as Chief Technical Officer, with a mission including helping Alpha extend its enterprise-oriented “back end” (server-side) and web software to mobile devices.

I recently chatted with Bricklin to see how that’s going, his thoughts and observations about the mobile space, and advice for today’s mobile users and developers. (Note: Bricklin and I were in the same dorm, year, and tiddlywinks team at MIT, way back when.) Here’s an interview based on our chat.

BetaBoston: What does Alpha Software do?

Bricklin: Alpha Software’s Alpha Anywhere is a development environment that uses features like dialog boxes and drag-and-drop to rapidly create, deploy, manage and update business applications that involve large databases, using features like dialog boxes and drag-and-drop. (See Bricklin’s essay, WHY JOHNNY CAN’T PROGRAM.) It builds the different parts of an application that you need, including the server-side that’s storing data, and the clients, and you only need create custom code — in a standard language — for something we haven’t yet put in.

Client software is generated as web apps that use HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript, and optionally, using Adobe PhoneGap, packaging an app into a standard “native wrapper” so it can be installed directly on mobile devices rather than having to be used via the device’s browser.

BetaBoston: Are there common themes between Alpha and the various products you have developed over the years?

Bricklin: Yes — even in some cases for VisiCalc, my programs are mostly aimed at people who are developing applications.

For example, DEMO let less-technical people specify what they need, and prototype it for critiquing, helping you to quickly get something working, and iterate to the final product.

Creating Trellix, my first web-oriented app, gave me experience with apps and companies that had large numbers of users — often several millions. I didn’t build those applications myself, but our company — Trellix.com, now owned by Web.com — did.

BetaBoston: What led Alpha Software to bringing you onboard?

Bricklin: I’d known their top people for a number of years. They wanted my mobile-side experience in user interfaces for work and business-oriented apps. For example, I had my NoteTaker HD iPad app for sale within a month after the first iPad came out, and it was being used by a lot of business people, including contractors, planners, and fleets of salespeople.

However, I’ve always been a client-side person, developing the application that people use on their device. But for this, you also need the back end, to store transaction data, etc., and I knew that if I went into business applications that took advantage of mobile, I would have to provide access to databases and all those other things done on servers. I haven’t built any tools in that area.

That’s why I joined with Alpha — they have a lot of experience and product in tools for creating business applications.

BetaBoston: Why “Chief Technical Officer”?

Bricklin: My role was going to be as a senior-level person doing a variety of tasks including creating and prototyping features, building things to test our products out, and the like. I also act as a technical spokesperson, doing things like talking to developers… and doing this interview.

BetaBoston: RN How is building mobile apps for business different from consumer apps?

Bricklin: Several ways. One, a consumer app needs to be something you can learn quickly, but a business app someone will use for their job can justify requiring hours or even days of training.

Two, many business apps are for specific, ephemeral tasks, like supporting salespeople for a two-week campaign where the details won’t be known until close to the time the app is needed. An app like this may only have a few screens, and a company can’t spend a lot of time or money to create it. Alpha Anywhere lets you do this.

Three, business apps have to reflect and address a specific problem or task, and be part of the larger IT data environment. So it’s more important that they can be written once and run on a variety of platforms, done quickly, and be error-free. To do that, developers require a higher level of understanding of the business problem — and a tool that handles most of the code generation.

BetaBoston: What advice do you have for companies and developers looking into mobile business apps?

Bricklin: For companies — start thinking about how you would re-engineer what you have or do taking advantage of mobile devices… and if you aren’t doing mobile or even web development, are still using environments like Microsoft Access, look at a development environment that spans both. Like Alpha Anywhere, of course.

For developers — if you are using languages like Access, Cobol, or C, learn HTML, CSS and JavaScript, at least enough to be fluent. There are inexpensive and free resources for this. And if you want to try building apps, there’s a free 30-day trial of Alpha Anywhere you can download.

BetaBoston: Other thoughts?

Bricklin: The connected mobile space is an exciting new area. We only have technology transitions like this once in a while. I’ve been lucky enough to go through several because I started working with computers before I was old enough to drive, back in high school in the mid- 1960’s. We’re at another of those magic points, it’s going to be a big deal for businesses to be able to take advantage of connected mobile devices.

Photo courtesy of Dan Bricklin.