Mathcad Inventor Reveals New Startup’s True Ambition—Numbers That Mean More and Don’t Make Mistakes

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passed around in e-mails and interim reports. What customer say they love about [the truenumbers system] is that it’s going to give these numbers a place to live.”

That place might be a repository or “numberspace” hosted on a company’s local servers, or it might be True Engineer’s free, public numberspace. Any Web user can create a truenumber at www.truenum.com. It’s free to sign up for an account that allows you to store your truenumbers in the public repository—but if you want more privacy, you can buy True Engineering’s enterprise appliance and install it in your data center.

How exactly does the technology lend numbers visibility? Razdow gives the example of a hypothetical sports equipment company developing a new, lightweight bicycle. A number like the maximum target weight for the bike—say 9.5 pounds—would be critical to many people in the company, including designers, engineers, machinists, marketers, and executives. But as the product evolves, documents circulate, and more people get brought into the project, it might become more and more unclear where that number actually came from or why it’s important.

It would be useful, Razdow says, if everyone could pinpoint the origins of the number and its variants. Maybe “9.5 pounds” was just something somebody randomly tossed out in a brainstorming meeting—or maybe there’s a competitor with a 9.75-pound bike, meaning there’s an important reason behind it. If the quantity were a truenumber, its provenance would always be just a click away, whatever document it appeared in.

“You may have an engineering organization that works for years using the wrong numbers,” says Razdow. “We haven’t changed the fact that there are multiple numbers floating around, we have just captured them and made sure there is visibility of that fact, so you no longer have the confusion.”

True Engineering, formerly called Beehive Engineering Systems, is an angel-funded startup with Razdow as its only full-time employee. To make his technology compatible with Web browsers and desktop applications like spreadsheets and word processors, Razdow build the truenumbers scheme around standard XML—the eXtensible Markup Language, the universal scheme for formatting data in the Web 2.0 world. Like the hCard format for storing business-card information, the hCalendar format for event information, and the RSS format for news stories and blog posts, the truenumbers scheme is a microformat, a way of unlocking the data stuck in digital documents by adding machine-readable context.

The truenumber idea seems predestined to appeal to engineers, Web developers, and geeks of many stripes. To understand its potential to enhance all things quantitative, all you have to do is look at the way hypertext has changed the way we communicate in written language. But will the concept start to spread at anything like the pace with which HTML was adopted in the early 1990s? That depends on whether Razdow’s first target market for truenumbers, engineers inside numbers-driven organizations, see the merit in the system and start to build private and public repositories of tagged numbers that others can then refer to.

“It’s the whole chicken-and-egg problem,” says Dan Bricklin, who knows a bit about numbers—he founded Software Arts in 1979 and co-created VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program. (Software Arts was eventually bought by Lotus; Bricklin, who now runs a Newton Highlands, MA, software consultancy called Software Garden, has been briefed by Razdow on the truenumbers technology.) “There are multiple ways of delivering the data, and he went with a URL-like one that has the least friction, to start, for engineers,” Bricklin says. “But will they … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Mathcad Inventor Reveals New Startup’s True Ambition—Numbers That Mean More and Don’t Make Mistakes”

  1. awesome says:

    “Here’s an actual truenumber […] 150 mi. To get a sense of how a truenumber works, hover over the quantity, then click on it”

    You clicked truenumber: 7a42dac3-b0df-49b6-b4aa=-31043ad2fb21

    [ERROR] ID Not Found

    Comments and annotations
    -NONE-
    Barcode for this TrueNumber
    Invalid Data

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @awesome: Thanks for noticing that problem. Somehow an extra “=” sign had slipped into the ID for the truenumber. We took it out and it should be working fine now.

  3. Miramon says:

    Is a True Number a permanent URI? What guarantee is provided of permanence?

    Lockheed-Martin deserves dissolution for that famously imbecilic mistake, but it would be even worse if some software pinged a True Number URL for some critical application and got a 404.

    Also, what about any kind of calculation efficiency? Suppose I have to calculate with a table of a million or a billion True Numbers? Even if I cache them all, I am obviously going to be wasting enormous resources if I need a network round trip with all that HTML returned from an Internet inquiry into a True Number value.

    I suppose you may say that you shouldn’t actually be calculating with True Numbers to begin with, but you can be pretty sure that if it becomes a government procurement standard, that’s what Lockheed-Martin will do.