Dan Bricklin: ‘Millions of custom apps are coming – and that’s a good thing’

September 5, 2013

But VisiCalc was only the start for serial tools creator Bricklin who’s worked on many projects since then including the highly regarded Note Taker HD for the iPad. After decades of calling the shots at his own company, Bricklin recently joined business software firm Alpha Software as Chief Technology Officer. In this edited Skype interview, TabTimes talked to him about what he’s up to and some of the many challenges he sees ahead for mobile developers and users.

TabTimes: What is the biggest challenge mobile developers face today?
Dan Bricklin: I’m excited about touch in general, but Apple disappointed me when they shipped the latest MacBook with no touch. they did change the way the touchpad worked to scroll in the same direction, but they didn’t [match] what Microsoft has done.

Everything is getting touch, and it makes certain things on mobile possible. There are a lot of iPads that have keyboards, virtually every business person using an iPad has one because people do want to enter data and create in ways that don’t seem to be the ways Apple thought the iPad would be used.

And the tablet industry is still evolving?
We are going to be amazed at what’s coming next. That’s why mobile is so challenging and crafting the right products is so difficult because there are so many ways you can go.

Lots of folks snuck Apple II computers into work so they could use VisiCalc. You could argue that was an early example of BYOD. What do you make of the trend today?
I think people still expect their employer to buy their laptop, but now they’re buying their own tablet or smartphone – there are lots of combinations, which complicates things for IT. But now these tablets are getting so inexpensive. If a company sees a use for a device like the new Nexus 7, they’ll just buy it for you.

You’ve developed for so many different platforms over the years, what has it been like writing software for the iPad — good, bad or just different?
Everything is different. I went from writing a spreadsheet to javascript to run on everything, Internet Explorer 6 and early Safari and the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child computer) and then the iPhone and iPad; pushing like crazy to get the note-taking app done. Programming is programming and I enjoy it. There are different things today like the tactile responsiveness of touchscreens. I love it. That was the idea with the spreadsheet and other programs I’ve worked on, that they’re always interactive and responsive.

There’s an incredible amount of power in these new tablets that we can take advantage of in service to the interface and it’s a whole new set of worries, like how things animate.

(App development and strategy will be among the key topics discussed at the TabletBiz conference and expo coming to New York on November 13, 2013). 

What else impresses you in the tablet world these days?
The Surface Pro is a wonderful tablet. Good keyboard, very responsive and the way you can scroll up and zoom with your fingers. I miss that on a big screen, the ability to zoom so easily.

What are you doing now at Alpha Software?
I’ve always been a tool builder, creating things others can use to solve their problems. With tablets coming into their own in business, we’re seeing the importance of data capture and the presentation of information, whether it’s your sales force or the factory floor it’s clear that millions of custom apps need to be built.

So I wanted to get into that, but then I realized I needed to think about the database behind it all, the legacy systems. This is what Alpha Software has been doing for years and this lets me work on a lot of custom stuff, HTML5 and mobile apps that I’m interested in.

And it’s given me a chance to be more directly involved in the business world which I haven’t been. Alpha is very good at making it easy for developers to offer the common case features and then dive much deeper if they want to.

You said millions of custom apps?
Companies today spend a lot of time on one application, but there is a misunderstanding there. Think about the interface between a customer and a pharmacy. There are a lot of different use cases. The person behind the counter needs one thing, the person dealing with customers something else versus the guy stocking the shelves or someone in the warehouse. You don't need to try and create the perfect app to handle all those different scenarios.

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