February 17, 2006 6:30 AM PST

Software pioneer Bricklin tackles wikis

If ever someone was going to merge two technologies as disparate as wikis and spreadsheets, VisiCalc creator Dan Bricklin might well be the person for the job.

In 1979, Bricklin released VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet for personal computers. Now he's close to finishing the beta for WikiCalc, an open-source, browser-based collaboration tool that mimics the functionality of a spreadsheet while leveraging the technology of wikis, which let anyone, anywhere manipulate data across the Web.

Dan Bricklin Dan Bricklin

Currently in alpha--though a stable beta version is expected by the end of February--WikiCalc is a general purpose tool developed with AJAX that runs either locally or off a server on Windows, Mac OS X, Unix or Linux. WikiCalc is designed to let people enter, store and modify data in the tabular format with which so many Excel, Lotus 1-2-3 and, yes, VisiCalc users are familiar.

"It holds a lot of promise, both because it's using the spreadsheet metaphor, which is the one thing people know for working with quantitative information and because "there's nobody better in the world to build this thing," said Ross Mayfield, CEO of collaboration software maker SocialText.

To Mayfield, WikiCalc is the answer to a problem that has been percolating for some time in the world of IT. That is, he said, that spreadsheets have traditionally been a single-user application screaming for functionality that could let multiple people edit data quickly and easily.

Excel competitor?
Of course, WikiCalc isn't the only way to use a spreadsheet on the Web.

Another product, Num Sum, lets people create Web-based, sharable spreadsheets, though not using WikiCalc's open-source model. And Microsoft's Excel by itself does not have the capability for multiple people to work inside a single spreadsheet. But this can be done using the Groove collaboration tool that Microsoft acquired last year. With Office 2007, due later this year, businesses will be able to get Groove and Excel together as part of the Enterprise Edition of Office, the highest-end bundle. Also, Windows Sharepoint Services provides wiki-like editing capabilities for spreadsheets.

WikiCalc

In addition, JotSpot Tracker is a product in public beta that like WikiCalc allows anyone to create, publish and share custom tracking applications like spreadsheets that can integrate with other applications.

But in the world of spreadsheets, everything is going to be compared to Excel, and Bricklin's software is solving problems users have been dealing with for years.

"With (Excel), you get people playing e-mail volleyball with attachments all day long, so it's grossly inefficient," Mayfield said. "How do you track changes on a spreadsheet? What happens if you don't have just two people going back and forth, (but) have a finance department of 40 people trying to roll up numbers."

Bricklin's answer is to make it possible for anyone using WikiCalc to enter data and for anyone else to edit that data and have those edits be reflected on everyone's computers instantaneously.

"You could use it as an authoring tool without having anything more than a hosting account from your ISP," Bricklin said.

For now, not all WikiCalc features are live. For example, the ability to enter HTML into cells and do dynamic calls for information from the Web is not yet available. But Bricklin said that most, if not all, features should be ready in the beta version later this month.

As a functional spreadsheet, WikiCalc is definitively not on par with Excel, those familiar with it are quick to point out. Yet the software can handle many spreadsheet-like functions, including presenting data in the tabular format that so many are comfortable with and calculating formulas in discrete cells. And that is what could make it accessible to large numbers of people.

CONTINUED: Spreading the spreadsheet…
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VisiCalc, spreadsheet, Wiki, collaboration tool, Groove Networks Inc.

11 comments

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Check out Jotspot Tracker
Another ajax-y online spreadsheet tool. i've been using it for a month or so for a group project and its great.

It'll be interesting to see the similarities/differences between these two tools.
Posted by kbclancy (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Microsoft Office Live should do a WikiCalc too
WikiCalc is just the tip of the iceberg. This metaphor could be extended to any authoring tool or collaboration application. Dan Bricklin may develop more applications, or others in the open source world may innovate on the concept.

Microsoft Office Live will have lots of basic applications for small businesses. A WikiCalc like service would be a good idea. This is an area ripe for innovation. The focus will be on simple 80% solutions to everyday problems. The UIs will be intuitive, web based, and collaborative.

I wrote a blog on WikiCalc and Office Live today. See <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2006/02/wikicalc_from_t.html" target="_newWindow">http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2006/02/wikicalc_from_t.html</a>
Posted by Don_Dodge (64 comments )
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Wow
That would be real innovation from Microsoft. The world holds it's collective breath.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Link Flag
Check out BadBlue as well
Couple of versions that share Excel workbooks using native Excel as the backend... no conversions or lost functionality (IIS version and built-in server).

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://badblue.com/helpxls.htm" target="_newWindow">http://badblue.com/helpxls.htm</a>
Posted by MercilessUnicorn (31 comments )
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Where In The World Is IBM's "LOTUS KONA"...
... "WikiCalc is a way of solving that from a developer perspective," he said, "because they can simply suck the transaction data straight into the (spreadsheet) and that avoids at least one if not two steps."

Howlett also said he believes WikiCalc could be used to break down the barriers between finance and sales departments by making it easy to collaborate on data.

"So it means that the finance guy can be a help to the sales guy," he said. "They've always been like enemies, and now they can be friends." ; as the Lotus Kona story goes, "One overriding theme - Lotus has taken the Internet to heart and is upgrading all its software to make it as Net-friendly as possible.

"We're really serious about this stuff," said Lotus VP Mike Zisman, at a Java strategy briefing. Lotus appears fully committed to what's become the standard programming language of the Internet with some 300 Java program developers on board along with hundreds more at parent company IBM.

In many ways, the Java-based Kona, demonstrated for the first time at the conference, resembles a cut-down version of Lotus SmartSuite. This is the company's flagship group of applications that includes programs such as the 1-2-3 spreadsheet and WordPro word processor. However, instead of whittling down SmartSuite, Lotus built Kona from the ground up". Since it can be easily noted from this article -- "Lotus brews potent Java with Kona" <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.morochove.com/watch/cw/ff70206.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.morochove.com/watch/cw/ff70206.htm</a> ... that Lotus Kona was already "Web-Centric" years ago; also, that "Kona applets include a word processor, spreadsheet, charting, drawing, e-mail and an organizer with calendar and to-do capabilities. The result is a Works-type program for the Internet or Network Computer (NC) that is useful yet surprisingly small"; according to the above mentioned article, one now wonders "Where On Earth Is IBM's LOTUS KONA" in view of this most interesting "WikiCalc" development and deployment! "Two" On The Web Is Company! $$$ :-)
Posted by Captain_Spock (894 comments )
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That would be the late "eSuite"...
On my first project with Lotus Professional Services back in 1999 I convinced the Project Manager and a customer to use eSuite for the solution we were developing, and the week after the customer paid for it, Lotus dropped support for it. But guess what? 7 years later the customer is still using it with great success (web based time-keeping entry system)...
Posted by tcgathens (17 comments )
Link Flag
irows.com is my favorite
Take a look at <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.irows.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.irows.com</a>
They have some really cool features, and the UI is clean and nice
Posted by ybd (1 comment )
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