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.
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.
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.
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.