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Dan Bricklin: From killer app to iPhone app

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 7, 2009 02:58 PM

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Screen%20shot%202009-12-07%20at%203.40.20%20PM.pngIn the classroom at Harvard Business School where Dan Bricklin came up with the idea for an electronic spreadsheet, there now hangs a plaque that designates the resulting software program as the "original killer app of the information age."

Bricklin and his colleague Bob Frankston formed a company in 1979, Software Arts, which would eventually sell the VisiCalc spreadsheet program for $99. It ran on a new "personal computer" called the Apple II.

Thirty years later, Bricklin is now selling a $1.99 app for the iPhone called Dan Bricklin's NoteTaker. It debuted last Friday on Apple's iTunes Store, and is climbing up the list of most-popular productivity apps sold through the online store. (Here's Bricklin's post about the new app, which includes a video demo.)

I talked to Bricklin earlier today to ask about his plans for more mobile apps, and what inspired him to create this one.

bricklin1.jpgBricklin told me he has been interested in developing a mobile app for some time; his last big project was SocialCalc, a collaborative online spreadsheet that is being marketed by Palo Alto-baed SocialText and may soon be included on the One Laptop Per Child initiative's low-cost laptops. He considered developing for the Palm Pre and Google's Android operating system, but instead chose the iPhone since Apple's customers had already proven their willingness to pay for all kinds of software.

"I picked up a few books about iPhone programming on a trip to Toronto in early September," Bricklin says. (They included "Beginning iPhone 3 Development" and "iPhone Application Development for Dummies.") He decided to buy a new iMac and an iPhone, and start working on an app.

"One of the things that really bothered me about the iPhone was telling people to wait while you tried to type in their phone number or an address," he says. "It's embarrassing. I thought you could do it faster if you could just draw on the screen with your finger."

So that's exactly what NoteTaker does: it lets you draw on the screen, and shrinks your writing as you go. There's a free version with some limits on its functionality, and the $1.99 paid version. "It's incredibly simple, and it's not intended for art. It's for notes, lists, sketches, names, and addresses," Bricklin says. You can e-mail the resulting scribbles to yourself or a friend, and with the $1.99 version, you can type in text while looking at a drawing, converting phone numbers, for instance, into contact entries in your address book.

An Android version is on the way, as are more features for the iPhone version. (He's already thinking about the best way to integrate handwriting recognition into the software, to automatically transform your scrawls into text.)

I asked Bricklin what percentage of the revenue he was keeping from his iPhone app, compared to earlier programs he developed, like VisiCalc or Dan Bricklin's Demo Program. With packaged software sold through resellers and distributors, Bricklin estimated he'd received about 50 percent of the sale price. (VisiCalc originally sold for $99.) With iPhone apps, the developer pockets 70 percent of the sale price. "It isn't so bad. You have no operating costs, like producing the disks, and Apple takes care of the taxes," he says. "The even sell it internationally." He submitted NoteTaker for Apple's review process just before Thanksgiving, and it went on sale about ten days later.

Bricklin sounds jazzed about the possibility of developing more software for smartphones. "It's clear to me that we're in the post-PC era. The locus of computing power is moving to the pocket," he says. "This is how we're going to do computing, and there will be big businesses built here -- $100 million businesses. There will be businesses of the size that you saw in the PC software business, centered around mobile phones."

Is he planning to build another company around mobile software? (His last start-up was Concord-based Trellix Corp.) "I might. We're at the tip of the iceberg. Do I want to start it today? Let's just say I'm still experimenting."

You'd think that given Bricklin's history with Apple (he knows co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and VisiCalc helped put Apple Computers into thousands of small and medium-sized businesses), Apple might feature his new iPhone app on the "New and Noteworthy" home screen of its app store.

But not yet...

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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