Bricklin on Java, Microsoft

Bricklin on Java, Microsoft

Dan Bricklin, founder and chief technology officer at Trellix, is renowned as the co- creator of the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, releasing the product long before the likes of Microsoft and Lotus Development came up with their own equivalent software.

Unfortunately, since Bricklin was a pioneer in the embryonic PC software industry of the late 1970s, the necessary patent law to protect his product wasn't yet in place, so he didn't make millions of dollars out of his invention and VisiCalc was widely copied, then superseded by Microsoft's Excel and Lotus 1-2-3.

These days, Bricklin is touting what he hopes will be a similar groundbreaking product, Trellix, which is also the name of the company he founded last year to develop and market the software.

Trellix, the product, now in its second release, is an application that helps end users create online documents. The privately-owned company, headquartered in Massachusetts, currently employs 30 people. The software runs on Windows 95, 98 and NT.

At Comdex/Fall '98, Trellix got the endorsement of Corel, which announced that it intends to bundle Trellix 2.0 in the next version of its desktop application suite, WordPerfect 2000.

IDG's c caught up with Bricklin at the show and asked him for his take on the deal with Corel, Java, Microsoft's legal battles and what's hot at ComdexIDG: How will the Corel deal help Trellix?

Bricklin: Corel is a strong number-two player in the retail environment. They're very strong in the legal, SOHO (small office home office) and government sectors. The deal gives us access in those markets that we wouldn't have otherwise. Corel will also get us into other language versions (Trellix currently is only available in an English-language version). It gives us visibility around the world. We will be offering Trellix in several more languages, I'm not sure which ones yet.

How about the future possibility of Trellix being bundled with Lotus' SmartSuite or Microsoft's Office desktop applications suites?

Not at this point. There's always a chance. Our deal with Corel is non-exclusive. We can be bundled with a variety of applications, but whether we should do so or not is another matter.

We're a poster child for COM (Microsoft's Common Object Model). With the Corel deal, they have an importer that allows users to import WordPerfect documents into Trellix. That's easy to do because we are both COM-based.

What programming language is Trellix written in and would you consider using Java?

C++ and Visual Basic. We used some Java originally, but we got rid of it.

Java on the client has not been very successful in specific instances over applications written in C. The whole idea of Java was to be able to download it when you needed it. The user interface components are just not up to scratch. C++ is more mature.

The Java trademark is a thing to be used to cover everything; the technology could be everything, whatever you imagine. But, the idea of "imagine if. . ." will not cut it. The problem with Java is that people expected too much. Worse yet, people said this (Java) is going to kill Microsoft. What's Microsoft going to do? They're going to do something about it. If someone comes up and paints a bulls-eye on your head, you're going to point a gun at them.

What do you think about the current legal wranglings between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems over Java?

A lot of it is couched in religious terms - "Don't you believe that . . . ?" There's a difference between belief and possibility. It's like are you a good Catholic if you use birth control? Businesses are not interested in belief.

How about the other legal challenge Microsoft faces with the antitrust suit brought by the US Department of Justice? Both sides say the trial is all about the possible stifling of innovation.

Antitrust does have something to do with innovation. Microsoft has to try everything it can to win. That's what lawsuits are all about - doing what it takes to win. The OJ Simpson case showed us that. It's legal stuff. You never know what's going to happen. It's all about interpretation.

People often refer to you as "the man who could've been Bill Gates". Are you glad you're not?

I think it's very tough to be Bill Gates. I'm not envious of him. If I was as rich as Gates, it's not something you dream of in terms of working the hours he does. I could've been more successful if certain laws hadn't been the way they were. But my life hasn't been so bad. People like you are still talking to me all these years on and I'm still creating new software!

One of the current buzzwords is knowledge management. Does Trellix fit into the knowledge management view?

Knowledge management means almost anything. If you're involved in it, you should check out Trellix. To me, it's about being able to find what you want when you get to the document you need and having documents online in a more readable form.

What have you seen here at Comdex that interests you?

What grabs me here is that you see more LCDs (liquid crystal displays) than CRTs (cathode ray tubes). It's unusual to see a CRT, unless it's connected to a laptop which has an LCD on it. LCDs are huge here. They used to be space age technology. You'd see one colour LCD behind a glass case. Then, you've got digital cameras and speech recognition here. All the old exotic technology is now the norm in different versions. We're not surprised now to see applications containing continuous speech recognition.

The other thing is everyone is really experimenting with form factors. Form factors is the big thing of this show. For example, Philips, with its LCDs, its tiny Nino device and its huge plasma displays. No one is asking what's the processor or what the operating system is - who cares? There's Hitachi with a flat panel display with a slot for playing CDs. It's like they took a Macintosh and squished it.

There are more digital cameras than regular cameras here. There are also more digital cameras here than video cameras - that wasn't the case last year.

What about the downside of all this technology?

We're lucky we've learned the hard way. We have to take computers seriously. They are as important to us as plumbing is. If the plumbing system collapsed, we'd all die of dysentery and cholera. If we don't take computers seriously, society would not be as it is.

We're building the infrastructure of the future. Computers are as important as the girders used to build buildings with.

How about the idea of computers creating even more disparity between the haves and have-nots in our society?

What computers have done is said that money and manpower is not the only leverage that you can get. Look at what DTP (desktop publishing) has done for nonprofit groups. Before, postage was a problem, but now you have the Net. Access to communications will continue to be in libraries, which have always offered access to what rich individuals have. Where does Gates give away stuff? To libraries.

Trellix, based in Massachusetts, can be reached via the Internet at