Dan Bricklin of Trellix Corp.

Dan Bricklin, a key innovator in desktop PC history, is about to hit the market with sophisticated software for new-era document creation. The man who conceived the VisiCalc electronic spreadsheet as a student at Harvard is now founder and chief technology officer at Trellix Corp. Waltham, Mass., which is releasing Trellix 1.0 productivity software this Fall. He thinks it will fill a void overlooked by today's word processors. The chance to talk with such a visionary led Managing Editor Jack Vaughan recently to visit Bricklin's Trellix headquarters near the Brandeis University campus.

With Trellix aren't you asking people to change the way they do things - specifically, how they write?

The thing we're asking them to do is use a tool that lets them produce output that's different than they're used to producing. It's not output different than they are used to reading. This is what's changed in the world recently. [Now] they are used to reading online, on-screen hypertext-style stuff. And, thanks to all the Comptons and Encarta and other encyclopedia CD-ROMS, they are used to that. If your using Windows Help, you're used to this way of reading.

What people are not used to is writing this way. If you're used to writing a letter, you are not used to writing a newspaper article where you start with the lead and tell what the whole thing's about first. When you write for on-screen, you do some of the same stuff. You put the details at the top and let people scroll for more if they want. When you're writing a normal linear document you often build it in reasoned steps that get you to a conclusion, but even then you have to go back and write a summary and put it at the beginning or end, but it should really be on a separate piece of paper. In fact, you're already thinking in this 'chunked' way that our tool works with. The word processor is for writing linear text, we're for writing nonlinear text.

Are the outliners that are in the suites being used?

They're not. We know that people are outlining but they are not using outliners. The computer enforces strict outlines like you were taught in school and you can't specify things. The outliners are very non-intuitive to use. That's why we give you this map where you can put separate thoughts anywhere you want just like you would put pieces of paper around your desk. If you want to be hierarchical, you can.

A physical document feels better - you can get the gist of the whole thing. Trellix gives you that feeling. A word processor is fine for writing for paper. It is very poor for reading on screen. If you have more than a page or two, nobody reads it onscreen, they all print it out.

You clearly have a track record with desk top applications. What's your view of feature bloat?

Two things: When you first come out with a category, there's a long time when you can keep on adding features. And that is what we're going to be into with our category, which is nice because it means we can add features for a long time before we'll ever be feature bloated in any sense. Remember, hardware improves. For example, when laser printers came up, spreadsheets changed and you had to have more fonts, and gridlines became possible, so Excel was able to come in. The laser printer basically helped Excel take over 1-2-3 because it did a better transition to the laser printer as output. With new hardware, you start adding features. Eventually you get to the point where there's marginal advantage to adding extra features. Unfortunately, the company involved may be used to producing new versions all the time and the upgrade revenue is important to them, so they have to keep doing that and hope that business keeps going that way. Plus, there are some customers who want each of these new features, so they are encouraged to add these new features. So you do get some of that bloat. But the actual percentage of your machine that goes to your word processor really hasn't changed, when you think about it, it's probably gone down.

When I was thinking of bloat, I was thinking there are so many doo-dads on screen.

The cancerous icons! They're all over the place. That has happened in many areas and eventually we go back to simplifying again.

Looks like the HTML browsers are getting bloated.

Yes. You can run Windows on a lot smaller machine then you can run Navigator on Windows. Navigator takes up a lot of space. The browsers are big applications, and browsers need some of the stuff that's underneath them. But a reason for feature bloat is people keep on finding new things that they want to do. In the physical world, categories break up into many little pieces. Like with cameras, there is no one camera type - there are many different kinds of cameras and many different features. With software, people try to put all the features into one camera. But there's no weight difference. We're in the ebb and tide of that. People say you can get away with less with HTML. HTML is more what we used to have get by with was plain old E-mail, ASCII!

HTML let us be more than that. It was an advance in the file format that we all shared. HTML was an advance in terms of that, and HTML is bloating like crazy, in terms of features that people want. It's adding all sorts of stuff but we want those things. With word processor bloat, the problem is when they put in a feature that gets in your way, that you don't want. A you don't know how to turn it off.

How about spreadsheet bloat?

Same thing with spreadsheets. It's so neat when you find all these new features ... the problem is when they put the feature in a way that gets in your way. There is a design problem there. The problem is when they break the stuff you were using. That's a normal problem from any version to any other version.

I've sometimes wondered if the online analytical or multidimensional tools could inherit the mantle of the spreadsheet - as a new level of analysis.

One year after coming out with VisiCalc, we had a design for multidimensional type of stuff where there were multiple sheets, columns and rows, panes and all that. We had designs on that and I think may have implemented some of them. And then Adam Osborne's firm [Paperback Software Applications, sued by Lotus] came out with a product and it had a user interface that was similar to 1-2-3. It had a whole section of a multi-dimensional database built into it for doing analysis for product managers. It did all sorts of great stuff, which Lotus of course completely ignored and said it had nothing to do with anything to the [U.S. Supreme] Court. But of course, people do care about that, but not a lot of people.

All sorts of companies have been looking at ways of cutting data. That's important. But a spreadsheet isn't that. One use of a spreadsheet is to do analysis on numbers and stuff and to work with columns and rows. A spreadsheet is a two-dimensional workspace where you can lay out the numbers any way you feel like. You don't have to use columns and rows. People frequently put things off to the side. Whenever you build a product that is strictly columns and rows of tables, it doesn't work as well because people like the ability to put things where they want. So, they'll have an inflation factor they will put somewhere. Improv had a problem with that because Improv was mainly tables and what's nice in a spreadsheet is that you're laying out the printed output the way you think. We did the same thing with Trellix. You can put the [Trellix] pages anywhere you want, not where we specify, so that you can express yourself. [Often] spreadsheets are used as a word processor for numbers that also calculates, where you can place things as a layout engine, laying it out any way you feel like. Some use is for doing all sorts of calculations and there you start getting into multi-dimensionality and all that and that's not for everybody. That's for people who can think of numbers that way. Those of us who can, can't imagine that others can't. But then there are people with perfect pitch who can't imagine those who are tone deaf can't hear what they hear. What has kept the spreadsheet going for so many years has been the fact that it is so general purpose in its layout. All these things that served a particular purpose only got a small part of the market.

The spreadsheet is such an essential tool to a class of people. It's like a hammer, the typewriter or the slide rule.

Well, it was a combination of the pencil and paper, and the slide rule and the calculator. But it merged the form as well as the function. Trellix is a similar type of thing. I think it's a similar in that it's an elemental type of tool. There will be others.

You have long been a force in the Massachusetts software industry. What do you think when you see Massachusetts firms like Vermeer and Powersoft scooped up by others?

So, where's all this innovation happening that people are scooping up? Innovation is happening here. Sometimes companies grow big here. We have a lot of well-trained people. People move here because they want to move here, people want to raise their families here. There are good reasons to be here - good reasons to be elsewhere too! I see this as a vibrant community. If it turns out that the little companies are always bought out by the big companies and most of the big companies are elsewhere, then our companies will be bought out, but they will continue to manufacture [software] here!

A last question and sorry if it's a little highfalutin. Is hypertext creating a global intelligence?

I don't know. If there is something you're interested in, you can find out about it. Well there was a time when people were considered well-rounded because they knew a little about everything. We now often do that in our own areas. You don't have to have a great library about everything in your house. The Web gives you such a feeling of connectedness to everything that there is. It's so empowering to know that if someone you know has a strange disease, and you want to find out more about it, you can find out right away, you don't have to spend hours in the library, searching from college to college. You can do all that from your room. That's a totally different feeling. It must be like the feeling when people first walked into the library. Just think how empowering it was when libraries became first available to individuals and they could become like great philosophers.

But now we have the modern adjustment of time. [You don't] learn everything in advance, [when] there's too much to know. It used to be that you had to know everything, you were trained in school and went out and were prepared for life. In today's world, 'prepared for life' is learning how to find what's next.

If we are using the old tools to write, the information isn't going to be easily accessible. It's like filming a play and calling that a movie. You write a screenplay. The same thing is true for hypertext. You don't just take the linear stuff and just dump it there. You don't just take character-mode applications and put them on a GUI. That doesn't work either. We're saying the same thing about text. You have to write for the medium and the medium is hypertext.

Click here for more on Trellix:

Other links of interest:
A brief on Dan Bricklin from an online encyclopedia.
A brief on Adam Osborne from an online encyclopedia (Bricklin refers to Osborne's Paperback Software in the course of the above interview).

The Electronic Laboratory. Old by Web standards, but still a worthwhile and unique collection on the history of hypertext.