Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
Joining Alpha Software as CTO
The background behind Dan Bricklin joining Alpha Software as CTO in 2013.
I've recently joined Burlington, Massachusetts, based Alpha Software Corporation as their CTO. After three and a half years of doing iOS programming on my own, and after tracking the reception of mobile and touch-enabled devices in the enterprise, I feel the time is right to take on an exciting new challenge. Here are the particulars.

Three years ago I released the Note Taker HD app for Apple's, at the time, brand new iPad. Note Taker HD is an app for capturing and organizing handwritten notes. Over the years I have upgraded it with lots of additional features, mainly in response to user feedback. It rose to become a leading app. In 2011, as I recall, it was overall in the top 50 of all paid iPad apps in all genres in a year-summary Apple report. I wrote all of the code (in Objective-C) and documentation for the app myself. I also have done, and continue to do, all of the user support myself -- a frequent task with so many users.

I am 61 years old. It's an amazing feeling to still be able to create a successful software product in "today's" world, 10 years after helping guide the million-plus-user Trellix web-based authoring system, 25 years after writing the "best programming tool of 1986" Demo Program, 30+ years after VisiCalc, and 35 years after coding part of an early screen-based word processor. I love this industry and it makes me so happy to still be able to participate with "modern" products as the definition of that term evolves -- and to participate as a developer doing hands-on coding, an activity that I still enjoy immensely.

The move to mobile
I've seen from my interaction with my app's users how quickly tablets have been assimilated into normal business and educational use. Since it allows you to markup a PDF document with "ink", text, and photos, my app has been used for patient intake, construction sign-off, and data capture of all sorts. It is used in the rarified board rooms of large companies, as well as by high-powered financial executives and by legal people for taking notes and marking up documents. It is used by medical students for taking their notes in bio-chem and anatomy classes, by grade school teachers to illustrate concepts projected on a screen, and even by grade school students taking their notes and doing homework on worksheets.

From this I see the evolution of data capture and manipulation to these mobile devices. While my app works with personal data, with everything pretty much resident on the device, I can see how important larger-scale multi-user applications with shared data will become. I see how innovation in interaction, like I had to do recently in order to provide high-resolution handwritten note taking on the low-resolution iPad digitizer, and like I did in the old days to implement a "magic blackboard" for numbers, will  happen in the context of capturing and manipulating data. I want to participate in that innovation as I have in the past.

Thinking about doing this type of work, I realized that the user interaction side is only one aspect of a business application. I like to develop tools that many people can use for their own purposes. Data capture and display without the ability to specify business logic and a centralized database would not be anywhere near as much of interest. The thought of needing to build a usable yet powerful development environment that encompassed access and update of shared data and custom reporting, as well as the creation of the user experience seemed pretty daunting.

Alpha Software
Enter serendipity. I was catching up with my friends at Alpha Software last summer. I had been following their progress as they added more and more sophisticated support for web access to their business application development environment. Years ago, in the 1980s, I had used their DOS product, the Alpha Four relational database system, to run my business. While I was coding Dan Bricklin's Demo Program in C and assembler, when it came to order processing and maintaining my user list I used their "codeless" system to build and run what I needed. Why should I write a report generator when their system let me define what I needed so easily and quickly, and spewed out the mailing labels and invoices with so little coding? Why use an expensive canned system when I could quickly craft exactly what I needed and enhance it as my assistant Jennifer and I found new things we needed that would help our office?

Over the years the Alpha development environment followed the changes in technology. It got LAN support for multiuser, then connectivity to robust SQL databases like Oracle and MySQL. The simple customizations that it had in the old days were upgraded to allow you to add your own code at almost any point, not restricting you to just the many options in their rich property-sheet system. They went from a proprietary desktop client-only to open browser support. Their browser support went from simple to heavy-duty CSS and JavaScript, with simple support for touch on modern browsers. Their path fit with what I had been advocating in my writings here in "The Developer's Challenge in 2011".

Another thing about Alpha that fit with what I've written about previously: I wrote about different styles of programming environments back in 2002 in my "Why Johnny can't program" essay. Alpha's development environment, with its mixture of "builders" and "genies" that walk you through specifying things like a SQL query or preconfiguring a bunch of controls, with its property sheet-driven customizations, and with its ability to drop into line-by-line code with auto-complete and context-sensitive documentation, combines some of the best features of a declarative system with a "traditional" statement-driven system. It gives you power along with speed and ease of use. That has always set it apart from other development environments and makes it appropriate for a very wide range of users.

I've always liked making tools that let "domain experts" create what they need without having to be coding experts. You can see this in my work from spreadsheets to the Demo Program and beyond. The people at Alpha have the same drive.

Alpha Anywhere
What I saw last year was that they had managed to use the HTML5 technologies (HTML, JavaScript, and CSS) to let developers create apps with the look and feel of a "native" app, but built and deployed using their proven development system, complete with the server-side functionality. They would be releasing this major upgrade as "Alpha Anywhere" sometime the following year. They had already spent years developing the same type of base I felt that I would need. And they had real users who proved that the system was robust and feature-full enough for the real world, and that provided valuable feedback to help guide that development.

I also found out that my two friends, Richard and Selwyn Rabins, the brothers who co-founded Alpha years before and shepherded it along ever since, had been joined by a very active investor, Joseph Alsop. I was acquainted with Joe from interactions when we were both on the board of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council a while back. I also knew his brother, Stewart Alsop, from the days in the 1980s when we were both on the board of at the Boston Computer Society, from his work at InfoWorld, and from the Agenda conference that he founded and led. (I first met Stewart in 1981 when he was working at Inc. Magazine and wrote the cover story about Software Arts and VisiCalc that got me on the cover the first time. We introduced him to personal computing for the first time.) Joe had run Progress Software for many years, growing it into a giant in the business software world. No longer at Progress, he was now working closely with Richard and Selwyn to exploit the opportunity in development and deployment brought about by the influx of mobile devices into the enterprise. I like Joe and I value his experience and wisdom with respect to growing a business selling to the larger companies. That was another major attraction.

That day, Richard and I came to the same conclusion. We should look into joining forces. I had lots of experience in the "hand-coded" mobile world, and years of experience with JavaScript, the standards-driven language that Alpha was using as its target. They needed help at the management and "vision" level that had that deep technical experience.

Over the next few months I finished up a major release of my iPad app. When that was released in November, I started learning about Alpha's system and their upcoming "Alpha Anywhere" release. It became clear that my most valuable role at that point was to help introduce Alpha's products to other developers. As a newcomer to their system, I could hopefully take the perspective of potential users and help those users evaluate what it was and understand how it differed from other means for developing apps. As an experienced mobile developer, I could also give input to Selwyn and the others who were developing Alpha Anywhere.

Along the way, another old friend became involved. John Cullinane became an advisor and investor. I had gotten to know John years ago through my membership on the board of the Massachusetts Software Council (now the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council) that he helped found. John is well known as the founder and leader of Cullinane Corporation (later known as Cullinet), the first software products company to successfully go public. It eventually reached over a $1B in valuation. John has been hands-on, helping us craft our messages and work on strategy. Working with him has been a treat.

As it turned out, I was still able to use my iOS programming skills. To help developers using Alpha Anywhere, I created a simple iOS app written in native code for testing the JavaScript web apps that it produced. That app, GardenWeb, makes it easy to run web apps full-screen, do some simple debugging, and even improve demonstrations on external screens, like with Apple TV, by showing where a user's finger-touches are on the screen. It also has a QR code reader built in, to make it easy to connect to an Alpha Anywhere development setup on the same wireless LAN. (Alpha Anywhere can display a QR code with a LAN URL to do instant previews while developing.) I also got to learn about PhoneGap/Cordova support on iOS so I could participate knowledgeably in development discussions about that.

Most recently, I've been using my video "skills" to author some of the material used for explaining Alpha Anywhere to others. I've created an overview video of the system, "live" videos of some of the sample apps in action on a variety of mobile devices (using techniques I mastered doing similar videos for my mobile apps over the last few years as well as pen computing videos in the 1990s), a high-speed video of me developing an app in Alpha Anywhere to show the Gestalt of being an Alpha Anywhere developer, and finally a step-by-step, "Build your first app" video complete with a written script. These videos together provide what I feel, as a developer, I would need to have seen before I would be confident that I had an idea of what this system is really like and know whether I should look into it much more deeply for actual use in deployed applications for my company.

Now that Alpha Anywhere is officially announced and available (see the Alpha Software web site) I'll spend time helping others learn about it. Yay! I get to have the fun of talking to the press, podcasters, and more, and not need to be in stealth, pre-release mode. It's been a while since I last did that.

I can also start working with the team to help them define the next steps as we add further capabilities to the system. I also get to provide input as they complete the cloud hosting service part of the environment, hopefully using my experience at Trellix working with Tripod and others to advantage. And, now that we have a base and users, I can experiment with innovations to enhance the use of mobile computing in business settings. There is so much that I am looking forward to.

Me with Selwyn and Richard Rabins

Given my recent online writings, you'll see that Alpha Anywhere fits right in. Those writings include: "Is the Apple iPad really "magical"?" about how with the iPad you are the magician because it gives you an enhanced feeling of control, "The Developer's Challenge in 2013" about mid-sized tablets and large screens with Apple TV et al, "JavaScript rolls on (as does SocialCalc)" about the performance advances in JavaScript, and "An Overview of HTML 5, PhoneGap, and Mobile Apps" which gives background about what I'm talking about when I say "web apps" or "PhoneGap/Cordova".

What will happen to Note Taker HD?
What about my own mobile app, Note Taker HD?

I haven't had much time to devote to it in the last many months and have not updated it recently. However, even after starting to work with Alpha, I have continued to personally provide just as good (or sometimes better) support than I have throughout the life of the app so far. The user interface crafting and support material that I so carefully developed have served me well in that the support burden has never been too great. I'm pretty sure that I can continue to provide email support (and, infrequently when necessary as before, even telephone support) for a long time to come. I don't think that the upcoming iOS 7 will necessitate much or any coding changes, but I'm prepared to work to try to keep the app running on modern hardware and operating systems, and my work agreement with Alpha gives me flexibility there. I'm proud that so far I've been able to keep the app useful even on the original iPad and not abandon my early users.

In terms of any major feature upgrades, at this point I can't make any commitments. I don't know what Alpha's and my family's time needs, compared to my free time, will be this year. We'll see. I do know that the current product is quite good and has been serving people well as it is. I know that there are, and have always been, and will always be, features that would enhance it in very valuable ways. I can never add them all, but what the app is already is quite good and so much more than I dreamed when I started. Maybe I'll find some help for development as we recruit from the pool of potential developers at Alpha. I hope so, but again, no promises. I have some features partially implemented and an upgraded UI designed, but they have not risen anywhere near the level worthy of release. As I've learned from years of product development, don't promise anything that isn't already working, so I won't.

Thinking about Note taker HD has been a really emotional part of this change for me. I have thousands and thousands of users who depend upon it every day. I thank them for choosing my product and I'm so pleased that the functionality I've worked so hard to create has met so many of their needs for so long (and hopefully will continue to meet those needs in the future). Whether or not I am actively writing new code does not affect the current usefulness of what is already in the Apple App Store.

I love how I've been able to have a very nice income as an app developer, the dream of so many of us who code, and I thank those who made it possible with their purchases and those who made the tools and platform that I use. I thank those that continue to buy and recommend my app.

One of the best "perks" of doing this has been to work closely with my UI and graphics designers. My daughter Adina has helped the product immensely and got to have what people would have expected her to have in that field -- experience working with me and experience tracking the evolution of the mobile world along with me. I got the joy of being a proud father, working together with my child as equals, watching her grow in experience and wisdom, and learning from her about things that had not been in my world. I thank her for giving me the opportunity. (She continues to help us at Alpha. She is by profession an artist, with a recent MFA in 2D Fine Arts, but also works part-time doing UI and web design.) I also got to work with my nephew, Michael, as he learned the joy of creating a product and using his artistic skills in the world of development to take an area of my app further than I had imagined.

So, that's the story of how I ended up as CTO of Alpha Software. Please check out the Alpha Software web site to learn more about Alpha Anywhere.

-Dan Bricklin, 19 June 2013

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