Today Socialtext announced a partnership with Dan Bricklin (inventor of VisiCalc) to exclusively distribute, redistribute and co-develop wikiCalc -- the social spreadsheet. Dan brings a rich understanding not just of spreadsheets, but also open source and social software. You can thank VisiCalc, the original killer app, for the Personal Computing revolution and bringing PCs into enterprises from the bottom up. It may take some time, but Socialtext, wikiCalc and the community will develop an important contribution to Social Computing. I'd like to share how this came together, what it means and where we are going.
David Weinberger re-introduced me to Dan, whom I met at a couple of conferences. The deal was a calculated decision that took almost six months. We needed to build a shared understanding for how we can work together and work with a community. We share common principles in open source and designing social software. We see an opportunity to change the way people work together, that is different from an office on the web.
Andy McAfee defined Enterprise 2.0 as the use of freeform social software within companies: freeform in that the application does not impose structure prior to use. Since the inception of Socialtext, we have avoided the temptations of structure, not just because one man's structure is another's barrier, but because it immediately divides the world into those who can structure it, and those who cannot.
Wikis begin as a blank page, just like spreadsheets. Some think this is a weakness, but it is actually a strength -- because it asks all the right questions. How should we use this tool? What should we apply this to? What kind of buckets should we put information in? What's my role? To make a wiki work, and all IT for that matter, agreement on how to use the tool makes it work.
When Ward Cunningham invented the wiki ten years ago, one of his core design principles was a collaboration environment for experts and novices alike. This equality of usability matters, especially in the context of an enterprise. Some approaches assume that users will learn a new proprietary scripting language to create or modify structure, but programming will never be a novice activity. Writing and linking can be done by novices, and so too using a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are the most widely adopted interface for creating and modifying structure, databases and applications.
One way that a wiki, and wikiCalc, enables social use of a tool without imposing structure is the properties of transparency and memory. In a wiki, a copy of every edit is saved with attribution. This supports trust and accountability. Given the nature of spreadsheets, wikiCalc takes this one step further, creating a revision history of every single edit to any cell -- not just when you save and the undos before. This not only holds the promise of tracking down errors, but provides an audit trail.
But spreadsheets, like other killer PC apps, were not designed for a networked world, but for a single users. Today the problem isn't just people playing email volleyball all day digging for who did what to each revision. Work is social, information can be linked and data comes in feeds. Today it isn't the problems of productivity kept personal, but the opportunity to build computing that is social.
Dan just released wikiCalc Beta as an Open Source GPL distribution. Right now you can use and modify a web-based spreadsheet of your own. We hope you will join this community. In the coming days we will release wikiCalc under a more liberal and commercial-friendly distribution. I'll let you determine the differentiating features, but the primary one isn't in the code -- it's that it is Open Source. We see great promise for an enterprise-friendly wikiCalc.
You may know Socialtext's commitment to Open Source has been a foundation of our company values. Today I can share that the Socialtext Open Source Edition, functionally equivalent to our commercial wikis for users, will be released next month at OSCON. Yes, I know it's a little odd for startups to communicate such news in advance, but there is nothing to fear, and it's part of being open with a community. Wikiwyg, wikiCalc and the Socialtext Open Source Edition will all be released under the same OSI complaint Open Source license, based upon the Mozilla Public License. For more information on Open Source licensing, see Dan's great video.
It's a delight to work with Dan. We have a lot of work ahead of us and hope you will join us.
UPDATE: The Associated Press has an in-depth profile of Dan.