Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 3 / MARCH 1984 / PAGE 160

Visi-Gation? Barry Bayer.


I am told that the readers of Creative Computing have excellent imaginations. So close your eyes and journey back with me to those thrilling days of yesteryear (1978 or so) in a galaxy far, far away (Cambridge, MA). There, in a garret, or maybe a basement (the New England version of a California garage) are Daniel Bricklin, Robert Frankston (in, or maybe just out of Harvard Business School) and Daniel Fylstra, a budding software entrepreneur.

Bricklin and Frankston have been trying to interest people in a program that they wrote for the Apple II computer and its brand new Disk II, to simulate a professor's blackboard. And Fylstra, a class or two ahead in the B School, has been doing a good job selling a chess program, and perhaps a couple of other things for the Apple, under the company name of Personal Software, Inc.

Well, the deal is being made. Bob and Dan B. Will write this VisiCalc (or is it called ElectroPage?), and Dan F. and his Personal Software will publish and market the program. The publisher will pay the author a royalty of 1/3 more or less, and maybe everyone will make a few bucks on the project.

"Stop!' you cry. "I am from 1984, and just have to tell you guys that Dan F.'s company (VisiCorp, as it has come to be known) has just sued Bob and Dan B.'s company (Software Arts, as it has come to be known), for one hundred million dollars, give or take fifty million or so, for failure to deliver an advanced version of VisiCalc for the IBM PC and other more esoteric alleged breaches.'

"What's an IBM PC?' they ask. "We don't put VisiCalc on mainframes or minis. And a suit for a hundred million dollars over a program that we're selling for $79.95?

You've got to be kidding.' You explain that IBM has sold a million, more or less, personal computers in the couple of years since its introduction, which is pretty good, because the Apple II family has sold only a million and a quarter machines altogether. "You wans us to believe that the Steves are still selling Apples in 1984? Now we know you're nuts.'

Well, as astonishing as all that might be to the three friends in way back when, we know that it all happened. Apple Computer is still selling IIs, IBM has made a tremendous success out of its PC, and Software Arts and VisiCorp, whose joint product can be said, in a sense, to have legitimatized the microcomputer legal battles that they can't even their legal battles that they can't even agree what court to litigate in. (Software Arts, ensconced in a converted chocolate factory in Wellesley, MA prefers a court in the Northeast, while San Jose's VisiCorp prefers the friendlier climate of Sliicon Valley. (Ah . . . I can feel the legal fees flowing. It's nice to see the lawyers make a buck in the computer industry for a change.)

What are the issues? Well, as noted above, VisiCorp is complaining that Software Arts didn't deliver Advanced Version VisiCalc for the IBM PC (PCAV) on a timely basis as required by contract. (If programmers are to be liable to their publishers for failure to deliver an acceptable product on time, this could set a very lucrative--for the legal profession, anyhow--precedent.) Not only that, complains VisiCorp, but Software Arts stopped trying on PCAV, directing their resources to perfecting TK olver, instead. (This theory sounds a bit less farfetched, and not quite as interesting a precedent. Liability for failure to work in good faith is old stuff.)

But skulking around among the pleadings, it appears that the real dispute may be involved not with Advanced Version VisiCalc, but with Visi-On Calc, VisiCorp's spreadsheet sold as a part of the Visi-On system. Visi-On Calc, clearly an important part of VisiCorp's hopes for the future, will undoubtedly sell quite a few copies in the next year or two--many to people who might otherwise have purchased VisiCalc. VisiCorp claims that Visi-On Calc is all new code, and not at all a copy of VisiCalc. Software Arts seems to be laying some sort of claim to royalty income from the product. And, as is obvious, even though Lotus 1-2-3 is considered to be the current PC bestseller as of this writing, unless Visi-On is a complete dud, big money for all is at stake.

What does this mean to VisiCalc users, or those who would like to be? According to VisiCorp President Terry Opdendyk, the lawsuit(s) are not impeding the normal intercourse of business between the two firms, and PC Advanced Version, if not already shipping, should be out soon. Are new VisiCalcs in the offing? Well that could prove to be a little more difficult. But most lawsuits do get settled eventually, and at least some of the smart money is betting that VisiCorp will eventually find a way to purchase the Software Arts rights to VisiCalc, thereby obviating the need to continue fighting about Visi-On Calc. Whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch.

(In the meantime, can't you just imagine the expert testimony on VisiCorp's cost of delaying PCAV for a year. "Now Mr. Witness. You say you assumed, in your calculations, that the spreadsheet market would grow 20% annually, that interest rates would hold at 10.2%, and that the retail price of the product would remain constant. But what would your opinion be if . . .')