danbricklin.com/log

Starting January 12, 2006
Apple at 30, Podcast at Boston FIRST competition with Steve Wozniak, Marvin Minksy, and more, Podcast with Motorola's Toby Redshaw about wikis and blogs, New Alpha 0.3 release of wikiCalc, Essay about the Long Tail and general purpose tools, wikiCalc on Rocketboom, Podcasts from Mass Tech Leadership Council meeting, TopTenSources party podcast, Meeting people at David Weinberger's, Dan Caine and Jonathan Seelig speaking at CJP, New wikiCalc release with AJAX and more
12Jan06-31Mar06
2006_01_12.htm
Friday, March 31, 2006 
Apple at 30 [link]
There are lots of articles and posts about Apple Computer turning 30 tomorrow. Often VisiCalc is mentioned as an important component of their success, and Apple has even said that in the past. While in hindsight the spreadsheet as a productivity tool may have been just as successful long term if it had not been only available on the Apple II for the first several months, the fact that it was only on the Apple II was probably very important to early Apple. In that light, I think it is important to note that the decision to choose the Apple II as the first platform for VisiCalc was made by the publisher, Personal Software (later renamed VisiCorp). As I recall, Dan Fylstra, their president, made the decision himself based on a variety of factors including liking the company and their product, availability of disk drives, and Bob Frankston's familiarity with 6502 assembler. Dan deserves the credit from them for choosing that and to be listed in the names associated with Apple's 30th.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 
Podcast at Boston FIRST competition with Steve Wozniak, Marvin Minksy, and more [link]
I was invited to attend a VIP lunch at the Boston FIRST Regional Robotics Competition today. FIRST is the organization Dean Kamen founded to promote interest in science and technology in kids. I took some pictures, did some short podcast interviews, and watched the competition. Really cool. I wish I could have done this as a kid. This is really making a difference, as some of the people in the podcast make clear.

The event was at Boston University's new Agganis Area. Here are some pictures:

 
The arena looking from above, a team working on their robot
 
Robots and the people controlling them during competition, part of the audience
More of the audience
I put together a few short interviews into one 19 minute podcast. It starts outs with CIMIT (Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology) strategic director Ronald Newbower (I wrote up a visit to CIMIT in February 2002 here on my blog), then has iRobot chairman and co-founder Helen Greiner, then AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, then Steve Wozniak, then one of the Worcester, Massachusetts, "Polar Bots" team, and then a little sound from the competition.

To listen go to the "FIRST competition with Minsky Woz etc. 2006-03-25" entry on my podcast page.

Newbower, Greiner, Minksy, and Wozniak
I haven't been blogging much recently. I'm still hard at work on wikiCalc. Just a few more features and I can go into beta. I'm still quite happy how it's turning out. I just finished the ability to revert to any previously published version (complete with a way to see a list of each cell edit made between one publish and another) and RSS feeds indicating new versions on a page-by-page or site-wide basis. If you are using wikiCalc for anything, please let me know, even if things are going well. All feedback is helpful.

Thursday, March 23, 2006 
Podcast with Motorola's Toby Redshaw about wikis and blogs [link]
I spent some time with Toby Redshaw, Motorola's Corporate Vice President of Information Technology Strategy, Architecture & e-Business, at DiamondCluster's DX Summit a few weeks ago. He told me that Motorola, #49 on the Fortune 500, has almost 2,000 internal wikis (that's separate wikis, each with many pages), and 2,700 blogs used by 60,000 of their 68,000 employees daily. 4,000-5,000 people are actively contributing, the rest mainly read. He agreed to sit down for a podcast interview. To let him be candid, I agreed to wait for an OK from his corporate PR people before posting it. I just got the OK today (they accepted it with no changes).

Toby tells us about what wikis and blogs are used for, how they rolled them out, what benefits they get, how they chose what they did, experience with bad behavior, etc. Near the end, he also talks about their experiences with Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).

We all hear about wikiPedia and Open Source project use of wikis. It's refreshing to also hear about other use for smaller groups from someone a traditional business person should understand and identify with.

To listen, go to the "Toby Redshaw of Motorola about wikis and blogs 2006-03-06" entry on my podcast page or subscribe to the podcast feed. It's 30 minutes long.

Talking with him later (after giving him a demo of wikiCalc) he explained how wikis really helped save them time by getting around the need for a web specialist to maintain many important pages.

I did a previous podcast with Toby on the DiamondCluster Wavelengths Podcast series last summer where he also talks about SOA.

For people who care about the podcast details: I recorded this on an Edirol R-1 recorder with a single microphone. The mike was an Audio-Technica AT831b lavalier clipped to a ball-point pen which I used as a tiny makeshift handheld. The mike is directional, so I held it down near my knee as we talked sitting in chairs in the hotel hallway and pointed it to whoever was speaking. I turned on the mike's low-cut filter to keep the noises of holding the mike to a minimum. I had one of the earbuds from my MP3 player in one ear to monitor the sound. The R-1's level meter let me adjust things as Toby leaned back in his seat and its built-in limiter protected me from mistakes. This is a very light little setup that was easy to carry around all day. I didn't feel like traveling with my much bigger and heavier handheld mike -- I had enough carry on baggage.

Thursday, February 23, 2006 
New Alpha 0.3 release of wikiCalc [link]
I've just posted a new release of wikiCalc. This one is almost feature complete. (I'm still calling it an Alpha release until it is pretty much feature complete, then I'll call it Beta until "final" release.) It uses Ajax technologies even more extensively with both cell editing and formatting. It also has the new "wkcHTML" and "wkcHTTP" functions that let you have more control over the look of output and access to external web services during calculation. It includes separate Perl programs for executing the published spreadsheets "live" and having them recalculate with new data. The list of changes is on the "What's new in Alpha 0.3" page. More documentation, especially about the HTTP and "live" aspects, is coming in the next few days.

To download the new version go to the wikiCalc Alpha Test Home Page.

There are still a few more features I want to get in before I consider it complete for version 1. It needs a working "Edit This Page", easy examination of change history with rollback, RSS to notify others of changes, easier rollup of data from one spreadsheet to another, more functions, and easier customization of the code including for use in other languages.

In any case, this version is quite useful. It has a lot of capabilities for producing professional looking output easily. Try it and let me know what you think!

Sunday, February 19, 2006 
Essay about the Long Tail and general purpose tools [link]
For months and months I've been wanting to write an essay about some thoughts on the Long Tail. I've finally had the time. (The material was part of the talk I gave for TTI/Vanguard and I had time on the plane to turn the slides into an essay.)

The basic idea is that the value of the Long Tail isn't just that you make money selling an awful lot of unpopular things. The value comes from the fact that the long tail is the reason many people will choose one tool or system over another. I give some theory and examples to show why.


I relate this theory to cell phone video systems among other things. There is a lot of discussion about general purpose tools.

The reason I chose a spreadsheet as the basis for wikiCalc was because it is a proven general purpose tool. I think understanding what this means is important. As part of the talks I've been giving about innovation I've been showing photos of the types of problems VisiCalc was meant to solve (represented by my homework at Harvard Business School) to help drive home what it means that all applications are custom and that VisiCalc had to handle a wide range of applications. A spreadsheet is much more than a "table manager", and wikiCalc reflects this. I'll write more about "what a spreadsheet is" after I finish wikiCalc.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006 
wikiCalc on Rocketboom [link]
In mid-January I was at the Berkman Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, listening to a lunch time talk by Dan Gillmor. Afterwards I gave a few people a demo of the new (at the time) alpha version of wikiCalc. Steve Garfield was there and videotaped me doing it. Today that video was featured on Rocketboom. It's a little hard to see (they only have so many pixels...), but you'll get some idea of how interactive the product is. Thanks Steve!

Since then I've continued working on the product. I'm doing a demo tomorrow at a meeting of TTI/Vanguard. I may do another alpha release mid-next week. In any case, I'm aiming for beta (all major features available, documentation not complete, needs testing) by the end of the month or so.

New features (not released yet but being demoed tomorrow on stage): Ajax for cell editing, formatting, and sheet editing. It even has keyboard shortcuts ("/IR" inserts a row...how retro!). There's also page copy, delete, etc. Among other things, it's still missing RSS, the ability to easily track changes and roll back, and a working "Edit This Page".

One cool thing I've added (this is very techie): In the next release wikiCalc will have numeric values, text values, and HTML text values. If a function or formula results in an HTML value (e.g., =HTML("This is <b>bold</b>")) that HTML is rendered as you would expect. This lets you get cool effects. Even better: There is a function (now called HTTP, but probably something else when shipped) that takes a string as an argument, does an HTTP GET or POST request to that as a URL, gives it the type and value of its other arguments as normal web parameters, and processes the return as an appropriate value (either as a numeric value, text, or HTML). This lets you call specially coded CGI scripts written in any language on any server, give them some data, and then use the results to complete recalculation. For example (I'm demoing this tomorrow), you can give a little web service a zip code stored in a cell and have it send back the current air temperature as reported by some other web site. You can then take those values, along with the text values in cells that represent the city names, and give that all to another web service that returns a simple HTML bar graph (using <table>, <div>, and CSS styles) showing the different temperatures in a few cities. Finally, you can run the recalc and render part of wikiCalc separately (as a Perl CGI script), so a published web page can be "live" getting additional data either from arguments to the URL you invoke it with (e.g., "&A7=N7.15&B7=TLatest%20value") and/or through these HTTP spreadsheet function calls.

Many, many people have been asking for wikiCalc to run live, not just when editing but also when published. Hopefully these new features will address that well enough.

I'm planning to work with the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee's new formula subcommittee. I'll be giving them the benefit of any experience I have with spreadsheets (I've been involved in creating a few of them over the years, from VisiCalc in the late 1970's and early 1980's to Slate's AtHand in the early 1990's to wikiCalc today) and insight on looking to the future. I've already discussed these new features with one of the committee members. Hopefully I'll be inspired enough by their work to make wikiCalc's formula system acceptable to enough people (it's currently pretty lacking in functions).

In any case, the alpha version of wikiCalc available on the web site is still the old version 0.2 one from last month. These new features are not available yet. I just thought I'd use the fact that I should post about the Rocketboom video as an excuse to give an update. Developing this has been a lot of work, but I'm really happy how the product is turning out.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006 
Podcasts from Mass Tech Leadership Council meeting [link]
The Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council had one of their  big meetings this morning. They asked me to create podcasts of the different sessions and I did.

The first recording is a short talk by Boston Mayor Tom Menino. At about 5:45 in he talks about the new WiFi and wireless initiatives the city is doing.

Next, John Landry of Adesso Systems gave his view of the outlook for IT/software technology in the coming year. He's always entertaining, and knowing this was being podcast he made sure to describe things even if you couldn't see his slides.

John was followed by a panel of CIOs, moderated by eWeek Editor Eric Lundquist. The panelists were Sandesh Bhat, director of design and technology innovation at the IBM Software Group, Bethann Pepoli, deputy CIO of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and David Webb, CIO of Silicon Valley Bank. They talk about what they do and their role, some about where their budgets are going, how to sell to them, and (at 40:15) about their use of Open Source.

The final speaker, the keynoter, was Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.org. In this 47 minute speech (including audience questions) he talked about what Wikipedia is, how it's done, misconceptions about its organization, and more. Regular businesses like IBM are using collaborative tools like wikis and it's worth learning from the Wikipedia experience.

The podcasts are part of the series you get if you subscribe to my blog podcast feed. To listen to an individual recording, see the following entries on the blog podcast page: Mayor Menino, John Landry, CIO Panel, and Jimmy Wales.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006 
TopTenSources party podcast [link]
Tonight I took some time out from working on wikiCalc to attend a party for TopTenSources. As I wrote back in December, I've been doing some work for them so I was included in their list of invitees. They were celebrating moving into a real office and the pass off from founder John Palfrey to a team headed by new CEO Halley Suitt. I brought my recorder and mike and produced a podcast. It has Halley talking about what Top10 is all about and their business model (or lack there of), Adam Green talking about their business model and programming and what he's doing and his view of Web 2.0 (it's the excitement after the dead of 2000-2004), John Palfrey talking about Top10 and business models and RSS and copyright, other Top10-related and semi-related people talking about what they do, the chief scientist from Feedster.com talking about the differences between automatic and editor-driven search results, a short speech by John, Halley, and others, and more. It ends with Halley talking about Dave Winer and his role in RSS, wishing he was there.

As usual, the conditions were very tough for recording -- a small area with many people talking away loudly at once. Sometimes I got to talk to people in a room off to the side. Once again, a directional mike pays off.

To listen, go to the "TopTenSources party" entry on my blog podcast page or subscribe to the whole podcast with the blog podcast RSS feed. The recording is 48 minutes long.

I think this is it for me for podcasts (and parties) for a little while. I still have lots more programming to do to get wikiCalc out. People who see it are quite enthusiastic and I want it to be as complete and useful as possible for the 1.0 release. I'm learning a lot about the AJAX-related technologies needed to make the browser really "sing" for the interactivity people are telling me is important. (I now have a new topic for my speaking career...) Each time I add a new feature I just smile at what you can get done.

Sunday, January 22, 2006 
Meeting people at David Weinberger's [link]
Mary Hodder and some others were in town tonight and David Weinberger invited some people over to his house to schmooze about saving the Internet and other topics. I walked around at one point and asked some of the people if they'd like to say something for a podcast. You'll hear Mary, Halley Suitt, Steve Garfield, Henry Jenkins, Rebecca McKinnon, Bob Frankston, and others. It's nearly a half hour long.

To listen, go to the "Meeting people at David Weinberger's" entry on my blog podcast page.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006 
Dan Caine and Jonathan Seelig speaking at CJP [link]
Tonight I attended a meeting of the Technology Industry Group of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. The speakers were Dan Caine and Jonathan Seelig. Dan is best known (in the tech world) for founding the company that developed the TaxCut income tax software which was acquired in 1993 by H&R Block. Jonathan was a co-founder of Akamai Technologies. The talk was titled "Two Guys Talking: A Discussion on Starting Companies, Living in Israel, and Committing to the Jewish Enterprise". I was able to connect my recorder to the sound system and have it available as a podcast.

To listen to the podcast, go to the entry on my blog podcast for "Dan Caine and Jonathan Seelig at CJP". It is available as part of my blog podcast series which you can subscribe to using the RSS Feed URL. It is an hour and 11 minutes long (32.5MB).

Here are some pictures (Dan is on the left):

 



Thursday, January 12, 2006 
New wikiCalc release with AJAX and more [link]
I've finally released a new version of wikiCalc, my mashup of a wiki and a spreadsheet. This version, Alpha 0.2, adds a lot of different features and capabilities in many areas. The two most interesting to many people are (1) cell editing is now much more interactive using AJAX techniques, and (2) full source is provided along with other changes so that it can be run more than just client-side on a Windows machine. These two major capabilities go hand-in-hand so you can now test using an AJAX-style spreadsheet running through only a browser connected to a remote server.

The first release of wikiCalc back last November could produce quite nice looking output and handle a wide variety of spreadsheet applications. It included a sheet with formulas and formatted text, cells with borders and colors, merged cells, wiki-like multi-line text, copy/cut/paste, insert row/column, and much more. It could publish to HTML on a remote server by FTP and manage multiple "sites" on multiple hosts. It implemented a simple check in/check out method of allowing multiple maintainers. It did all of this through a browser connected to wikiCalc running locally on the PC serving up pages.

This combination of features whetted people's appetite. They liked the idea of a shared spreadsheet through a browser and all that. But over and over I got the same comment: This would really be great if it used AJAX. What they meant, as far as I can tell, was that they were really used to the "type and press arrow" method of entering data. They didn't like a total screen redraw with the sheet scrolled up to the top each time they moved the cursor or changed a cell. They wanted it to "feel" like a spreadsheet, like all the popular ones have since VisiCalc. They also wanted to use it hosted elsewhere. The local editing capability was nice, but they really wanted remote editing to have something different than they had now.

I had planned to develop wikiCalc in phases that made sure I didn't leave out basic functionality. The UI crafting was something I wanted to leave until I had that base built. But after using the program a bit it became clear to me that improving the editing interface was important, and, anyway, I needed to see what architectural problems might be posed by using a more browser-centric AJAX approach and I wanted to see how good (or bad) it could feel just running off of a remote server. So, once I got wikiCalc working server-side (and on the Mac), I turned my attention to AJAX. This release has the results.

I've run (and demoed to others) wikiCalc just running as a CGI script on a normal, inexpensive shared hosting account. The performance isn't too bad for small worksheets as far as I can tell. On a more robust server, using mod_perl for efficiency, it can be quite good. (Note that it seems to run faster when using Firefox than IE when editing larger sheets.)

When doing cell editing, the browser sends changes back to the server as you make them. The server responds with updates to cells whose values have changed and the browser only repaints those changes. All formula calculation and formatting is done by the server. All moving of the cursor is done by the browser. If your Internet connection dies, you only lose, hopefully, what you've done to the cell you are currently editing. If you want to add some complex formula function written in Perl or C++, you only have to do it on the server (wikiCalc is GPL Open Source) not in Javascript on the browser.

This release is available as a normal Windows install so you can just download a single file, execute it, and then use the "Demonstration Setup" option so you can see what this browser-based spreadsheet feels like (running locally off of a mini-server on your computer). It also is now available in source form and can be run on a Mac or Linux and you can read my AJAX code (the Javascript is commented). (A caveat: Unfortunately my Mac hard disk went out last week and I haven't been able to test the final release there...)

You can find links to the downloads and more information on the "wikiCalc Alpha Test Home" page.

For a list of the many changes in this new release, see "What's new in Alpha 0.2". For an explanation of the different modes of running wikiCalc (locally and remotely) and how it uses a directory structure to facilitate simple multi-user editing, see the "wikiCalc Architecture" page.

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