Bob: Dan, welcome to Nerd TV.
Dan: Well, I'm glad to be here.
Bob: Gosh, ya know, you have been in the software business all your life, since birth? Since -
Dan: No, since my teens, I guess. I first got into the hardware business sort of and got interested in that and the photography and whatever and then my cousin brought home this book one day, which was teaching you to program. It was something about Fortran by Desima and Anderson. And I always thought I had access to a time-sharing system back then. This was back in, must have been 66, something like that and - Fall 66, 1966.
Bob: So, how does a kid get access to a time-sharing system in 1966?
Dan: My cousin happened to go to one of the few schools in the city. There was these magnet schools that had access to this time-sharing system. There were just a handful of them. And he was there but it was a public school so anybody has access to go there. So, I'd go after school. I'd go over there. It was a tough school so it was very empty at night. And in fact at one point, the key didn't work or something. We took the door off the hinges and brought the lock over to a locksmith to get another key or something like that. People remind of the story. But they had a QuickTran terminal, which I think was an IBM 744 and then what I did was I called up people at the Bureau of Public Education and go to use their computers downtown. So they would run their payroll for 1401 and then they would run my Fortran program you know with the tapes driving and all that. But finally I had access -
Bob: Why would they do that?
Dan: I don't know. I guess because I asked.
Dan: But then the next summer there was a National Science Foundation course that I took at the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania, right down the hall from where they did the ENIAC. And there I programmed an 1130 in some interpreted language they had on it. That's where I really got into programming and then I got a job at the University of Pennsylvania at the Wharton School in the Computer Services Department and Wharton Computational Services and I would help the MBA students -- little did I know I would eventually be the MBA student -- with their Fortran. You could take it to fill your language requirement. So I helped them. They would come in and they'd bring their deck of cards and I'd say oh you forgot this card and I'd rip off the printouts from the printers and I did some programming there. I actually programmed a program that marked tests for some of the kids, the entrance test when freshman came in. My program ran it and did the statistics and stuff like that. That's how I made money in high school. It paid for my photography habit because photography originally paid for my electronics habit by selling pictures but then to really pay for my photography habit, electronics habit, I needed programming, which paid for that.
Bob: Okay, okay. And how did you choose to learn Fortran to start? That's unusual.
Dan: That's the book, that's the book.
Dan: No, in those days, what would you learn back then? 66?
Dan: You see Quicktran, what was available, was on timeshare.
Bob: I guess you're right.
Dan: As was Fortran or Basic.
Bob: Basic was 64, 65. It was still in Dartmouth.
Dan: I got to use a GE timesharing system in I think it was the Fall of 66 or 67. I don't remember. It must have been Fall 67. I used it for some homework things. Like I had it test me on French. You know I'd put in a list of words and it would randomly ask in one language and I would have to answer in the other language. You know on one of those big terminals that were really a teletype in a box and you put an acoustic coupler and it would dood, dood, dood, and you dial into the service. I had access to that at Wharton, which was kinda cool.
Bob: And all this still as a teenager?
Dan: As a teenager. In my high school, I went to a small Jewish day school outside Philadelphia and one of my school mates, a year ahead of me, was the guy by the name of Johnny Lazarus and he was the other computer person in the school. And one day he was doing some job with computers and he brought in one of these big things and we had an assembly. Everybody got in the foyer, which was a room couple times the size of this living room, which it was an old house it was in. And we had it there. Dialed in but I knew how to program so I typed a little program in and everybody was like, wow we actually had a computer in the school in the late 60s. It was like 67, 68. And John went on to found PC Week and then ended up working for Microsoft where he sat next to Ballmer. So he went off and did all these great things. And then and I went off and did my stuff. We've kept up a bit since but that was kinda cool. So you never know. I mean you know, about the stuff, the people who were the hackers in the old days, you know, all ended up doing interesting stuff.
Bob: They did. And was this something that you wanted to do as a profession?
Dan: I don't know. I mean, I used it in high school. When I went to college, I applied assuming I'd use computers and something when I went to college. And I got into MIT and I figured how can I turn that down? So I went to MIT and there I started as a math major figuring I don't want to be a computer nerd or whatever. I wanted to do something in a more liberal artsy or something. But I was flunking out as a math major and top of the class in computers so I saw the handwriting on the wall.
And when I graduated, there were hundreds of us who graduated in computer science so I couldn't really get into the good grad schools because I had been a math major for a while and it messed up my grade point. So I ended up working in Digital Equipment Corporation on computer typesetting and in word processing and because my father was a printer and as a kid I was into that type of stuff and doing systems programming and language stuff, while I was trained at that was not exactly what I wanted to end up doing. At MIT I worked on the Multix project. Out of that came Unix and stuff like that. I met all sorts of people. They went on to help create the internet and stuff like that. It was cool.
Bob: How did the Multix people feel about Unix?
Dan: Well people always called it, you can look at the different spellings. It's one of what Multix was many of. And it was Multix that was missing some features, important things, but it was the fact that the people who went off and did it were major people in the development of ideas in Multix.
Whenever I use Unix I just remember how we did it in Multix and try it and sure enough it will often work. You know it had pipes. You know ls was the way you got lists. It had drivers and stuff and I used a higher-level language to program it. So, nowadays we feel wonderful that that was the 386 architecture that came out of the Multix architecture. So an awful lot of things.
Bob: I didn't know that.
Dan: Oh yeah, yeah. Now they decided to use it in the - most people use it in the flat address space, not in the segmented address space format that the Multix used. We missed that because in Multix all you did is say, I want a file, open a file and you got an address pointer to it. And you can just do memory operations on it and it made input/output really easy. And you could have any amount of memory because everything started at zero because it was a new segment. But initially that was too expensive in the hardware so a lot of people didn't do that and they went with the flat memory system where they have to simulate as if they had segments. But the rings of protection in the way and the whole idea, the kernel in the media and that type of stuff, writing your operating system in a higher level language and all those things, using a shell do to stuff, a lot of them were pioneered in many ways through Multix.
Security being extremely important, Multix was partially funded by NSA and others in the government. So we were very security conscious and we were always told stories about that would teach us why you needed to be more secure. They would tell us about how - what does it mean to be secure? Well, you know it's not just not telling but not letting them know. So, for example we were told that on the day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so the story goes, the head of NSA was seen rushing from his car. That was considered a security breach. Okay? These are the war stories you are told.
Dan: I see. Spies have to saunter.
Bob: Yeah, well no. If they run, they have to always run.
Dan: Oh, okay.
Bob: It's poker, your poker face. If you are always nervous, that's fine but if only you can distinguish. People looked at what type of attacks could you do to figure out what was going on. Trust - Bob Frankston, my partner during VisiCalc, he did his master's thesis on how do you in a computer market place, like Multix was or the Internet, I guess the Arpanet or whatever it was becoming at the time, and you have all these parties that don't necessarily trust each other. How do you have micro payments? How do you have payments? And his thesis was how you need a third party you can trust and how you can automatically do stuff. It was very interesting. This was back in the early 70s I think or the 70s he did it. The mid 70s he did that.
So we were thinking about those types of things. And we had people you know who's job it was to try and crack systems. The government was paying them to try and figure out how to crack Multix. And I sort of taught from one of them a year or two ago. It was fascinating about what they did and the exploits that they used, which of course all work today.
But the Multix, you didn't worry about stacked overflow. Because of its architecture, it could handle that a lot better but its stacks went down or up or whatever, they were very security conscious. And even when they started doing the ArpaNet, they wanted to do things in cryptic but they were told by the government that it was a no supposedly.
Dan: NSA was, you'll have to talk to some people about that.
Bob: Yeah, I will.
Dan: I can give you some names. So, there were real war stories.
Bob: Literal war stories.
Dan: But I went from there to working in newspapers, computerized type newspapers, which was the real world. Right after that I worked with microprocessors at a company that made electronic cash registers for fast food places and word processing before that in between. So, I got a range of regular people using my products and what's it like. Like they didn't have modems. They didn't have extra telephone lines for the fast food, so you'd have to call up the, if you wanted to download what happened that day, you'd call up a store, which was the pay phone and they would throw a switch, which would connect it so they could dial up to the modem so they could download it. Sometimes the person said I can't talk to you now, we're being robbed. It was interesting working for companies like that. But actually that was a small company, a very small company and I found out that it was able to do all the things that big companies could do. You know it made, wave soldering made its equipment there. Was using the latest shift sets and doing all this neat development and it was a little company. And we were in decked as a billion dollar company in those days, which was a lot of money.
Dan: Huge in those days and I was there when it through the billion I think. And this little company could do all that same stuff. It just inspired me in becoming a little company person.
Bob: You realized the potential of a little company could be a big company or to just be a successful little company?
Dan: That little companies aren't a bad thing to work for. They can do just as good work as the big company. You don't have to be a big company to do interesting work, as a techie or as anybody. And since my dad, my grandfather was a small businessperson, it just fit with me. But I did go off to Harvard Business School to learn what business is about because I figured I didn't know much about business. And what better way to learn than to go to school. And I treated myself to two years of school there. Well, I had been making money and saving it as a programmer and all that and you know to suddenly become a student again, that is sort of treating yourself. Spending your money to go back to school.
Bob: So, how did you fit in at Harvard Business School?
Dan: The first evening, we showed up at a reception and spouses would come up to me and look at me, with the beard and a ponytail down almost to my waist, and said, "Oh my God, you're here!" You know because they say I was afraid they would turn into these capitalistic accomatants here but with somebody like you - I had the third longest hair in my section of 90 people. Three of the women had longer hair than me. And I did cut it the summer between my two years when I was going cross-country, camping cross-country. I had seen Easy Rider and decided it. And I talked to people that actually had people with tire irons coming for them, decided I would go. If I'm ever going to cut my hair, I should cut it now. I cut it down. But I fit in well. The professors were you know, they are not the big business whatever type. I mean they are much more into ethics and stuff than a lot of the students necessarily were. And I took some courses in entrepreneurship and stuff and they brought in all these wonderful entrepreneurs of all different sorts. Sprig who did Advent came in and the head of Analog Devices and we met all these different people. For me it was great because I got to see all sorts of business and how it was done, the case method. You learn about all sorts of things. And it helped inspire the spreadsheet. So, and I had one of my classmates, who inspired me in certain ways was a real inventor. He had gone to RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design and he worked with this guy by the name of Ron. And Ron has a company called Ronco.
Bob: Oh sure.
Dan: And my friend has gone on to do the rotisserie. His name is on the package, among other things, spray on hair. He helped get that out the door. One of my classmates is governor of New Hampshire right now.
Bob: Ron Popeil.
Dan: Yeah, his partner or whatever, I mean Ron's the head, was one of our classmates in our section. We had two Olympic athletes. I mean it's a really interesting, you know people from England and one of my classmates was a member of OPEC. He was from a Central American company that did oil and he actually sat behind Sheikh Yamani, who was at OPEC, like a big guy at OPEC. He had been, himself was kidnapped by Carlos. I mean it was very interesting learning about what the world was filled with.
Bob: I was there the day that happened.
Dan: But you weren't kidnapped.
Bob: No I was sitting in OPEC headquarters in Vienna. I was in the lobby when Carlos and the people came in.
Dan: Oh my God.
Bob: And they said, this is - I didn't know this was Carlos. And there was this fat Viennese off duty policeman who was the security guard and he said who are you? And Carlos said, we're the Palestinian Delegation. And he waved them through.
Dan: Oh my gosh. You get interesting stories about all sorts of stuff and you learn about all different ways, about certain people so it was a really great experience to go to school like that. I graduated Chairman of the Board with no salary but I had this product that I had announced a few days before graduation. The NCC in New York, which is also when I first met Bill Gates and Ben Rosen and a lot of people.
Bob: And that was the spreadsheet?
Dan: That was the spreadsheet. The idea for VisiCalc came to me sitting there in Harvard Business School. And taking my word processing background from Digital, my interpreter and other background from days before MIT and at MIT and stuff and putting it all together and coming up with the idea of word processing for numbers. The idea that it was, like words like desktop publishing became but in those days it was for newspapers. Layout - you could put things anywhere you want because we used the paper as a two-dimensional grid where you put things anywhere you felt like it. Not that it's column and rows that are named and whatever but it's a general way you put things.
And the original idea was supposed to be a head up display because I'm daydreaming in class. There are 90 people in a class, you know and you're listening to professors. So, I imagine my calculator had a mouse, ball at the bottom. I had actually seen a mouse before so and you moved it and you had a head up display so you could look at people. And you could pound out numbers and stuff like that and I came up with the whole idea you could put things where you want, just like a blackboard because I was thinking blackboard and spreadsheet paper. I even found some of my notes about it were on the back of a publication called The Spreadsheet that we had, which was one of the rags we had business school.
Bob: Sure, sure.
Dan: But decided to run, to found a company to publish, to make this thing. It was published by another business school graduate that I met through the business school. I had professors advising me. One professor hooked me up with my publisher, with Dan Fylstra and Peter Jennings and their company and two MBAs, one from Harvard and one elsewhere. And when we wanted advice on things, I went to Glauber at one point, who ended up as a head of Nasdaq, the company that owned Nasdaq, was Assistant Treasury Director later on, Michael Porter of Competitive Analysis in Oil gave us advice. We went to _____ Miller. I mean this was really cool what's available from the business school.
Bob: So had you gone to Cleveland State Business School, it wouldn't have been the same?
Dan: It would have been different. I would have ended up with the same product because I had the same background. The first professor who said it might be a good idea was an Operations Manager/Production Manager but the first computer person that I told about it was my professor, Professor Cash, Jim Cash, who actually had a Masters in Computer Science. And he told me user interface. I mean he couldn't visualize what I was talking about because without actually seeing the product, it's hard to visualize it. But he said you are talking about the input/output, the user interface. That is the important thing, Dan. You should do this. And Jim went on to head the MBA program. He's now retired. He's a director of Microsoft and Migrator and General Electric and stuff like that. He's head of the Compliance Committee on the Microsoft Board. Jim's a really good guy.
Bob: There's a job.
Dan: I feel really bad for Jim to have it but if anybody's going to have it, he's a good guy to have it. Jim's a really good, he decided to become a business school professor when he could have gone on to industry. But he had the chance to be the first tenured black professor at Harvard Business School in Wharton. And that helped a lot of people of color to get into business school. So there was good stuff. And he also was the one who helped spear head getting email and a lot of those other things into the curriculum and stuff and teaching managers who came in for the advanced programs to learn to use computers more and stuff.
So I had professors like that but he taught me cost accounting.
Bob: Exactly. Were you further ahead in the use of computers in business school then industry was in a comparable level?
Dan: Well let's see. They used a timesharing, a depth timesharing system and they used it for simulation and that was about it. We used our calculators. Some people like my friend, Allen who went to be with Ron with Ronco, Allen had a programmable calculator. He had more money than I did. He had one of the HP programmable and he would always program the things in the calculator and there I would run down and use the basic terminal and he would always beat me _____. I learned that quick and dirty can win when we were study partners.
And so we didn't use computers that much at the time. Though I did do some prototyping for VisiCalc on their machines. The actual time when I came up with that I'll use the A,B,C/1,2,3 type grid and that you would only see the results and then you would have a little window where you would be able to see the formula and stuff, that was actually that idea came to me while prototyping on one of their terminals in Basic.
So, but no, they weren't really into using it. Like you didn't do email. We didn't do any of that stuff. That, Jim and the others started bringing it in, I think first to the - well when VisiCalc came in, after me, there were professors, Eric Rosenfeld, who was a professor there, who was one of the partners in Personal Software, early Lotus or pre-Lotus with Visiplot, Visitrend and stuff like that. He bought an Apple and would bring it in and use it. And I think used it to help mark tests and stuff. The professors actually started using it and of course they noticed that certain students and then of course they brought in using a laptop, which was an IBM portable I think at the time. And they started adding it. But actually in the development, while I was prototyping, I had the early versions of it; I brought professors in under nondisclosure to see it. And one of them was Barbara Jackson who had been my professor where I had learned about financial forecasting systems at the school. We actually got to play with some of the systems.
And she was on the calculator committee because remember they had gone from slide rules. First they had slide rules in the old days, then they had to go to calculators and redo all the - they had to make calculations that were easy to do on slide rules and then had to redo all the cases to be able to have numbers and stuff for calculators. And so she actually was very helpful. She explained to me she had done a lot of work with computers with senior executives and was telling me how my competition was not any of these other tools. It was the back of an envelope. It was paper/pencil to calculator. That if it wasn't easier the first time, they won't do it. And it has to be, she said, easier, easier, easier.
She pushed me to that stuff. My classmate, John Reese, the other MIT grad in my section, said well Dan, you know, you have it this way. Can't you remove that because it's obvious that one plus and then pushing an arrow is unambiguous? That you want to point, put the thing. You don't have to put a key. You know I said, oh well, John that's a great idea. We're having a reunion tonight and he will be there. I get to see him about that. I got people who gave me ideas along those lines. So they started and eventually they switched over and then now they use the spreadsheet, which is kinda cool to affect teaching at your old institution.
That was one of the big things at every institution.
Bob: At every institution.
Dan: But especially at, you know how you like to have your parents be happy with what you do and your family happy with what you do. You know having your teachers who you look up to and who taught you things to say you did good stuff is a nice thing to have. And to bring back something to help you to add something to it is even better. Especially in my case, to make it easier for people who are going through what I went through to go through that stuff.
Bob: How did Bob Frankston come into the picture?
Dan: I met Bob at MIT. After the first semester, I figured MIT is going to be so hard. I'm not going to do any computer stuff because I'll flunk out if I do that. So my first semester I took a computer course, which I did really well in, I just going into the final I was number one in the class I think. It was pass/fail I think.
Bob: First among equals.
Dan: Do what?
Bob: First among equals.
Dan: Yeah, among equals. Well, no not everybody was a freshman. Only freshman were pass/fail.
Bob: Oh, okay.
Dan: And then worse yet, the second half of the year was Kent State happened and the student strike and they made everybody pass/fail for the last of the semester. But it didn't help for us freshman because we were pass/fail anyway to cut pressure down. So we wouldn't have as many suicides. And I decided to look for a job for programming. So I started walking around the labs and I poked my head into different offices and I poked my head in Professor Corbido's office, who was the head of the Multix project. And he said oh, you want a job. I'll give you a job. We'll give you a job on the Multix project. We usually do it for credit but we'll pay you some money. And I joined that project in late December, January of must be January of 70.
And my first thing to do was to take Bob Frankston's bachelor thesis project, which was a limited service system to give access to computers in a controlled environment to students and add some features to it in order to make fit into Multix better. So I met Bob through that and those of us who worked in that lab together got to know each other real well. Bob had a car because he had been working as a programmer since sometime in the early sixties. And he worked for WhiteWell, which later became Interactive Data Corporation. And so he was paid really well. He didn't get into MIT his first try. Went to Stoneybrook for a year. And then applied again. So he had to live off campus. So he had a car but he had a computer terminal in his room you know because he was paid. It was great.
So he would take us out to dinner, those of us who worked in Multix or out to breakfast, you know because we worked through the night. So we had a real social thing going on among us computer nerds. So Bob and I got close. We figured one of these days we'll make a business together. Both of us have parents that were small business people. His in electronics and mine in printing. And we stayed friends since.
Bob: Bob is a great guy.
Dan: Oh he really is. He lives just a few blocks from here. So, he's off at a conference or something right now. I talked to him last night for a second to tell him that I got to get permission from him to use my new product so, you know, before I do certain things, I want to make sure it's okay with him.
Bob: Because of the name?
Dan: Well because of the name. Before I would use the name, Visicalc, I would at least ask Bob. I asked a couple others but Bob particularly before I hit the buy button on the domain name and send the application in. And also just to tell him what I was doing. You know because I want to do something like that I know that he would peripherally be mentioned periodically. So, he should at least get an okay. Though he's not interested, he's never really been interested in spreadsheets. He's interested in communications much more.
Dan: Oh yeah. Ubiquitous communications is his life. He just did VisiCalc as some fun on the side.
Bob: Well he probably made a couple bucks too.
Dan: Not as much as he did doing other things. He went to Lotus, after Software Arts and stayed there and that did pretty well for him. And got them into some things, which they should have followed up on like Lotus Express, which was this email thing, where they had a tax on every email sent over MCI mail. That was a product he got started. But Lotus didn't follow up on that email or that product. Gates just asked me, why did they give up on that? Don't they breathe? Don't they breathe air, you know? They gave up. Microsoft doesn't give up. Lotus gave up and then they had to buy CC Mail later.
Bob did join me at Slate to do at hand a spreadsheet for propend computing. He did something that was a kin to VBA, I think before VBA a Basic like language. Like when I first met him, he had written Basic for Multix. He had a Basic like language for spreadsheet that had cells built into the Basic language. After Slate, he went on and went to Microsoft and had a very good five years, four and half years, whatever. And he commuted from here.
Bob: I remember.
Dan: He spent half the time but when he was there, he got them into home networking. He said it really had to just work. That we should be able to just plug a computer in and to a home network and it should just work. DHCP and whatever and stuff like that and you can use things like you know, the wired LANS that work through the phone wires was pushing on that. He was pushing them to the Internet. I remember him showing me. I have a video of him somewhere of him showing me Mosaic running the browser or running on hardware from Microsoft through Microsoft in connection to the Internet the month that Netscape was incorporated. I think he was at that meeting. "The Meeting" where Microsoft decided to go into the Internet. But basically he views his main thing is he really pushed them for home network and his home was the original model for doing that stuff and the prototype.
So he did his good for the world there and he did well by it. So, but that's all about connectivity. Now he's doing a whole lot of other things that has to do with connectivity. Trying to push to people to make freedom of speech on the Web. And freedom of speech being the program can do what they want to communicate to other programs and not to have people patrol ways in the way.
Dan: That everything can connect to everything so that there'd be ubiquitous connectivity of every light bulb. He said, "why should a light switch have anything to do with the light bulb other than to tell it to turn on and off?" You should have a little thing in it sort of almost like you can slap it on the wall anywhere you want. Why do you have to have the wires come through the light that goes to the you know? Why does it have to even be in the same room? Why can't I, if I want to, be able to check the status of the switch from elsewhere in the world securely?
Dan: He writes about a lot of that stuff in his weblog.
Bob: Well we'll have to get to Bob.
Dan: You really should get to Bob.
Bob: We definitely will.
Dan: But you can't today.
Bob: No, he's at a conference. So, how did it come that Bob hired on for VisiCalc?
Dan: For VisiCalc? I was in business school and let's see. So, I had sort of come up with what it should be. I had a prototype of it written in Basic that run on this computer I used over at Dan Fylstra's house, which was the offices of Personal Software, one of the largest publishing of software in those days. Run out of almost a living room or something. And he needed a programmer to convert the bridge program from I think TRS80 to the Apple.
So, I said why not Bob. Bob's a consultant who does computer programming. He knows the 6502 and that stuff. So, Bob went to do some work for him and he went over there. He got a listing of the basic program. The way he did it was he brought in a X70 Camera and took pictures of the screen as he went through it because they didn't have a printer on that machine. It was very basic then.
So when I came up with the idea and then made a deal with Personal Software to publish it, Bob said he'll program it. He had access to some tools on the Multix system that were 6502 assembler stuff. He had written 6502 stuff for a previous company that he was a consultant to - ECD Corporation, competitor to Apple. And I had done a little bit of consulting for ECD too, so Bob said it will only take a few weeks to write. So why don't he'll write it so I said sure. You can write. We'll be partners. We've always wanted to be in business together and we'll use this to fund our computer business or whatever we do, my software business. So, Bob ended up doing most of the programming. I did the user interface design, mainly in the Basic prototype. I played with that. Wrote the spec and early manual, the reference card.
So we had been trying to go into business, thinking of different areas before and hadn't been able to come up with any idea that was worthwhile. So this is sort of a way to start a business. And he came up with a name, Software Art, which was a good name for the company and he helped fund it because he had some more money than I did. I borrowed money from my family and he borrowed some money from his family and money he had. We borrowed money from a bank and bought a computer from Prime, which was a follow on to Multix. It was very much like it. And he wrote tools and I wrote an editor. And he wrote an assembler and a linker and we did VisiCalc. It took about six months until it was basically in final data. It took about six to nine months. It shipped at ten months or so, ten a half.
Bob: And what was their early reaction?
Dan: Some people went gaga over it. I mean Ben Rosen when he wrote that famous, "The Tail that Wags", the software The Tale that Wags, personal computer, hardware dog about it. Hewlett Packard, one of my classmates, ______ Howe worked in the personal computing division. The one that did the HP 75, I think it was. They licensed it from us based on that. So there were people who were interested in it. Apple was not as interested. Well, maybe they thought they could it themselves. I remember there was politics there but I didn't get to see a lot of that.
But among non-computer people, see if you're not the actual audience for a product, you don't understand it. Most people say computers can do anything. What's special about a spreadsheet? Programmers look at it and say you wrote a basic program. But only the people who really needed it, looked at it and only of those, those that understood the idea of a general purpose tool, the people that know what a general purpose tool can do and they can visualize it. That's a very small segment of the population. They can say I can use it to do this for my area. Other people needed somebody else to have done it like what they do and look it and you can use it for that?
That's exactly what I do. Like I showed a person, this guy Joe Suldnick, who was The Computer Store, he was their financial person and he started shaking. And he said, that's what I do all week. You can do it in 15 minutes what I take days every week to do, showing me all the spreadsheets he did by hand. Those people got real excited. But I only sold about a thousand units a month for the first year. Then we came out with the Radio Shack version, Basic version, Commodore Version 2. Radio Shack started advertising. HP started advertising their version, which was a recoded basic the program or something rather in their system. They took our source code and recoded from it.
And so then it started taking off. And you know it did more and more and I sold more and more personal software. Later Visicorp, they told me, there VP of Marketing - Ed Esber at the time, told me that the more they raise price the more they sold. No matter what they did they wanted more. That's what happened.
Bob: I'm not sure that cause and effect was actually there.
Dan: It wasn't cause and effect. It didn't matter because they had to go out and buy a computer for it and then you have to buy a good daisy wheel printer for it. It's like five thousand dollars anyway. It was replacing maybe timesharing or something that's five thousand dollars a month. So who cared you know? It was like the two orders of magnitude improvement, two-week payback. Like desktop publishing, it pays for itself in two weeks. So what the hell? You know it's heads I win, tails I don't lose much. One of my classmates is a business school professor now who wrote a book - he's at Columbia, Anwar Betty and he wrote a book about new small businesses where he interviewed all these Inc. 100 companies and he said the thing about the small business person isn't that they take risks other won't take. They don't take dumb risks. They just are willing to take risks but only good risks. But they can't investigate things to death like big people do so they'll say things like heads I win, tails I don't lose much. That's good enough.
Dan: Now, so it became from a thousand units a month at some point it exploded into this huge, eventually sold a few hundred thousand, maybe 700,000 copies, tying Lotus and shutting it down, which in those days was a lot. Basically we knew how many Apples were sold every month because we tracked it pretty well. And IBM came to us and basically when they shipped the ads showed what was supposed to VisiCalc, it was a Basic mock up. They didn't trust us or whatever. We could tell. It was just a character missing. But we shipped within a week of when the IBM PC came out and sold an awful lot of copies on there.
So, it did really well.
Bob: Well things went sour. What happened?
Dan: Well we were in an author/publisher relationship. In those days that was the model some of the businesses had. It was the model Dan Filestro at Personal Software came out of the publishing business, who's a co-founder, editor something like that of Byte Magazine. Carl Helmers was a good friend of his. And so that model of publishing and even the lawyers I think were involved in publishing ______ used. So, they started with a publishing business and it turned out that the software business has hits. In the hit business like that with the structure, that's not a good model and they also went for venture capital.
And which needed different returns and it just messed things up and the relationship between them and a lot of the authors soured. But we were the biggest author. Kapor, who was one of their authors at the time and also an employee, just left and they bought him out. He got a couple million, two million dollars out of that. We were selling ten times that much. We would have taken ten million bucks but we couldn't come to an agreement with them.
So things soured with that and we ended up in a lawsuit with them. They sued us. It was bad stuff. It was really bad. We were about to sell our company. We were days from selling our company for cash and we got sued. It was bad. They bet everything on VisiOn, which was something kind of like the Lisa and then the Macintosh except it was character based but it was bitmapped. It had all the disadvantages of bitmap with all the disadvantages of character base. It was an early and it goaded Bill Gates into doing Windows. But Bill Gates had a real cash cow. In our case, they sued our cash cow. So we had a real problem. And they expected I guess to ship a lot and make money but they didn't ship enough and they went under.
We sold out to Lotus. They saved us from going under. Mitch was a real hero there for us and bought our assets.
Bob: How was Mitch a hero?
Dan: For me? He kept my company from going bankrupt.
Dan: And he paid me more than what somebody else was about to pay me. And he did it real quick and easy. And gave me no handcuffs. It was great. I mean I ran into him one morning on the way to Sofcon, a software conference, at the airport and he asked me how things were going and I said lousy. And he invited me out to sit next to him on the plane, first class. I was sitting next to another suitor who was trying to buy our company. I had been flying around. I went to visit Esborough, Ashton Tate. And Mitch said oh you have an engineering, scientific product called TK Software. We have an engineering, scientific product division. Maybe we can do something. That was Monday. Friday we had a check. And Friday night was the first Passover Seder. Liberation, you know, of the slates.
And that afternoon we signed the deal.
Bob: So he property value was TK Software.
Dan: That's the way they saw it, of course it turned out that the VisiCalc copyrights were more valuable to them in the long run with the look at field cases that came in. But didn't know that. And TK Software, they resold for what they paid. It didn't make much difference. PR value was good. They brought Dave, they brought Bob in which they got Lotus Express out of it and Lotus Metro out of it. David Reed joined them who had been with us. He was one of the authors of the End-to-End argument paper or the basis's of the Internet, as we know it. David led some of the projects for them and went off later to _________ and other places and he's now working at the Media Lab and I think it's Hewlett Packard.
And so they got a whole lot of other good people out of it. It was good for them. And PR wise it was good. For Ed it was the right thing to do. Oh and for me it was good because I was part of the deal. What we worked out was that I had this product that I was working on which was a demonstration program, when I was at Software Arts and written in our internal language and Mitch tried using it. We used it to prototype some of our stuff and of course it had bugs and kept crashing. So, I said I want to write a real version of this and see as a program. And they said fine. We'll make a deal. You can write the program and then just give us a license, a company wide license, to copy the source or something for our own use. And I said sure. And Dan Berkman's Demo Program came out of it.
And I made more money off the demo than I did off of VisiCalc.
Dan: Yeah. Well VisiCalc basically, I made my salary, which was a good salary but I frequently took no salary. At the end I got something from Lotus's money. I got a little bit of back salary. And we had a building that unfortunately we had put effort into making it a nice building and when we sold the building, I made a little bit of money. Paid for my house and stuff, for a small house. But Demo paid for a bigger house. And I sold that off to Peter Norton for a little bit and that was better than -
Bob: Now Dan Berkman's Demo Program was the way of making a demo version of your program before you would write the real version.
Dan: It would look like, you could paint the screen to look the way you wanted and then the next screen and then the next screen. So you could make it look the way wanted and it would respond to keystrokes. You could program it. And it was such that a marketing person could use it. People would use it for training. It was used for sales, for showing off things. And it was used for prototyping.
And in fact, a whole lot of the programs you see when you see a character based program, there's a good chance that Demo was used in the creation of the look with all the boxes around things for those programs. Thousands and thousands of copies were sold, 75 bucks apiece list. And it was used for head up display design on fighter planes, I'm told, cash registers, what was it, at Prodigy they used it for designing screens. I think it was used by UPS. I mean it was used. All sorts of people used it to demo. Lotus How was sold to Lotus by a demo that was done in Demo apparently.
Dan: I think that's what Bill Grosse had told me. All sorts of things were done in Demo. I learned there about different licenses. The product had a free runtime but it had a warning notice on it and some people didn't like the warning notice. So, you can get a runtime that didn't have a warning notice. But you had to identify me and pay me a thousand bucks. And companies asked for it. IBM needed to do a demo and they didn't want to have that on the demo they were showing off and they paid me. I had to get a fax machine because it was always being used immediately.
So, I found out that with special licensing deals, you can make a lot more money. In fact it's the difference between having a really good vacation and a lot of other things one year and that was the difference because I had these dual licenses that you could get by with that. It was kind of, learned about that. The day of learning about Shareware and things like that. Learned about that because I was on the committee that decided who got the Andrew Flugelman award when it first came out and we gave one of the first ones to, I forget. It was this bulletin board system and it was freeware. And we also gave it another one to the development of Freeware. No Flugelman did the freeware so it was one of these bulletin boards.
So I learned about that. And of course I was using freeware stuff, editors and that, the shareware type of stuff. So I was learning about that type of world, which was in the legal world. I had between the lawsuits I was involved with and running a business and all the contracts involved in financing and all that and courses I took, I had gotten a whole education. I could have gone to law school many times over with the money that was spent doing those things by somebody but it's not really a law school education. It's knowing a lawyer. But it's been helpful in understanding a lot of the other things, which is helping me in my understanding of open source.
Bob: And that's where you are now, right?
Bob: In the open source world?
Dan: I'm in the open source; well I'm in the business models world among other things. Of which, open source is an important part of it. So, when I was at Trellix, we were doing web authoring stuff and we were doing hosting stuff and I found that a lot of what we were building in-house was based on Linux because it was cheaper and better for stuff and Corel and we used open source this and that and we needed to have a certain type of product and we were able to get an open source version of that product to build our thing on but we had to separate it appropriately so we could because of the GPL and I started learning about all of these things.
I knew Richard Stallman from folk dancing and stuff from years ago and from you know, MIT. I didn't know him well but I knew. To me he was that really good folk dancer at the time. He could do the Balkan dances and I couldn't. But you know I've been learning about that and when I decided to go off on my own and program because I wanted to program again, I'd been releasing my things on a different type of open source-like, eventually GPL licenses. So I had been experimenting with business models, learning about it. And I did consulting. And companies want to know what you should do. What you should open source, what shouldn't you open source. I'm on an advisory board to the state here, which is now this whole thing about open document format and open source, open standards, what the difference between the two and what should we do.
So I had sort of gotten thrust into all of that. I released a product in open source last year, List Guard and it did pretty well in its area. It was a very narrow area, about hand RSS feed, when you don't have a blogging tool creating it for you. And that did really well and the dynamics of the open source part really they made a difference. I mean people treated it differently. The marketing costs were so much lower. Like they were zero basically. People don't expect the same support. And they are willing to pay for it. People give you donations if you ask for it. And plus people now think you are an expert. I mean there are all these things. And that was one month of programming.
So when I decided to do something follow on and did _______, I decided to go the same way because I see that the market likes a product that people seem to say - and it's GPL, it's open source, it means to them it's kind of like it's organic or it's kosher. Some people think that something kosher means it's better. No it isn't. It means it follows certain laws, certain rules. But it turns out that because it's been carefully watched at some end, because it costs so much to do it anyway, a lot of things are of higher quality. And of course, Hebrew National tries to make it look that way so there is this image that because it's that, it must be better. Well there is some image about open source products of certain ilk that is positive and people are more likely to recommend it because it's that. They are not going to - they feel that, I guess it's theirs. I don't know why. Maybe it's part of the culture, it's the right thing.
So you get certain viral stuff that doesn't pass on of your product. People telling people about it that you wouldn't get otherwise. That to me, open source pays - some of the business model is your costs go down.
Bob: But where's the revenue?
Dan: Well it depends on what you need as revenue. Well where was the revenue for some of my other products where the company lost money. I raised tens of millions of dollars of venture capital and the company in the end, didn't turn a profit. So, that doesn't - what is my goal? If my goal is to run a consulting business or to establish a reputation in the area where I do have a product, it's a help. If I just want to do good for the world and I need it myself, so I'm gonna spend the money anyway, why not do the little extra to make it a product. I know with open source, if you have the volume, there is money. That's the way it is. If you keep your cost structure. You have to build your business differently. That's a real problem with venture capital. Because venture capital is set up for big businesses. They have to be at least spending millions of dollars to fit their model. When you can start some businesses in the open source world, you don't have to spend on the marketing and sales people the same way initially. You don't have to spend on some of the development. You don't have to spend on those things. So your costs are much lower but they can't invest in those chunks. So you are in that netherworld where you either do it as a labor of love or you have some money to spend of your own or you are just a fast coder and you do something simple enough for whatever or you luck out.
And we see a variety of those from things in a dorm room and we have our Face Book and things like that that people are able to build businesses out of open source and all in today's world pretty cheaply. So I'm learning about that and this is to be able to speak about it, just like anything else, I like to actually have gotten my hands dirty in the area. And this is a way to get my hands dirty in the area. Hopefully people will like the product or what it becomes. I mean it's only an alpha right now. But I assume more people will try it then try List Guard. So, instead of a few thousand users -
Bob: There is a broader appeal.
Dan: There's a broader appeal. I'm using it to create websites right now. I mean it creates its own website about it because it can use it to create Wiki like design. It can create blog-type looks. You don't have to know html, just like you do with the Wiki. It handles the multiple editing a little differently where I can be on my PC and it sucks down the source but then leaves a little bread crumb up there so somebody else knows not to suck down the source. It takes care of that automatically. And then when I post it, then it goes away so somebody else can. When I do the server version of it, which is the same code with a little different front end, it'll do similar type stuff and you won't need a client site. It's always through a browser. So, it looks like it might bring in, you know that together with consulting -
Bob: What does the future hold?
Bob: You, us, technology, the world?
Dan: Well, we know accept technology as being part of the world. I mean the fact that the cell phone is now the thing that everybody has and people don't even - they carry that instead of their wallet. And the first new thing since the watch and wallet, that everybody carries with them. Technology, the Ipod, the success of the Ipod - we're seeing that it's become part of culture. I do a lot of reading of stuff about sociology and stuff. Things like the Death and Life of Great American Cities, you know that great book and stuff like that about what real people do and how communities interact and how the Web came about and we're now seeing technology is so much more part of life. We have to develop things along those ways.
I wrote an essay called Software in the Last 200 Years. As I learned about it's part of our infrastructure of society. And we can't keep redoing everything. We have to build things that sort of run till who knows when somebody is going to replace it. And things have to interact and be able to morph and move and be resilient and non-brittle. They have to be non-brittle when things happen. Society, you got to look at terrorists and other things. We have to be able to deal with accidents and you know, at natural situations, like Katrina and stuff. We look at what worked at Katrina, what worked in 9/11, what didn't. The president on 9/11 ended up having to use a cell phone because the secure system didn't at all work. The vice president found out about it from his assistant who said come watch it on CNN. You know and that's where they were finding out. The planes were gotten down by adhoc people figuring out on their own. You know, Blackberries work. Nextel worked. Some of those things, the internet continued to work. With other things bogged down, point to point stuff - they weren't able to rewire New York that easily. But Voice over IP, look what happened with Katrina. The only way you could get telephone calls to city hall in Katrina was over Vonage, Voice over IP, by somebody who by hook or crook was able to keep their ISP up, we can listen to podcasts on today. And we were listening in almost real time how they were keeping that ISP up, little realizing that the telephone call.
So we are learning about this is now a part of it. We have to build things that are in different way than we used to build them. Microsoft's change that they are going through with Ray, who worked for me at one point way back when - great guy, it's going to be interesting. They are making some changes. I think they have to change more than they are saying about what the world is and what the world wants but I think that this technology that I've always loved and many of us geeky types, nerdy types from back then, people you know didn't know what it was we were doing. They would laugh about computers have now become just part of the fabric of society and we always knew it was there and it's now happening.
I remember for me the big "aha" moment was when I picked up the Wall Street Journal, I think and it had an editorial that mentioned VisiCalc, as if you knew what it was. And that just got it for me. And in comics you had to know what a spreadsheet was. And then when you look at kids' textbooks today, you know and they teach spreadsheets. People said did they have spreadsheets when you were in school and I say no. Remember when I - oh yeah. So, that's kind of cool. And all of these people that I knew when I was younger, have helped build a lot of this stuff. We were all building and now the youngsters today, the people who are the age that I was when I did VisiCalc, are coming up with things that are changing the world today. It's unbelievable.
So, we don't know where it's going to go. I mean we had no idea what computing was going to be like back - we did. We did. Bob doing in the seventies about micro cameras on the ArpaNet and about how to trust third party and the next thing we know, we have a Pay Pal or something like that.
Bob: Next thing you know, 25 years later.
Dan: Twenty-five years later but you know, I remember first seeing the mouse some many years ago and then in 84, finally, many years later, it got advertisements about it on the Super bowl and then you know maybe ten years later, it was a normal thing and people could laugh if somebody talked into a mouse on a movie. We're moving a little faster than that now but ten years, 20 years is not a long time in society because you know some of those people, I mean Andy Hertzfeld and stuff, and all of these people you have, ____ Olsen and Winers and all these people have invented the things that make our society, improving on our lives, all of our lives and our social lives even. And we need to be able to continue doing that.
Bob: Thank you.
Dan: Yeah you are running out of bandwidth here. Bandwidth will hopefully get cheap.
Bob: I hope so. Thank you, Dan.
Dan: You're welcome.
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