“What we’re looking at is a cellular system. We use cells for everything,” Nelson explains. He keys through an example showing a three-dimensional arrangement of personal expenses, selecting cells’ content by month, day and type of expense, easily appending new data such as the cost of a long-distance phone call and then accessing a list of telephone numbers to identify the person called. In a spreadsheet with “integrated” database functions like Excel, it’s necessary to adhere to certain formatting conventions when creating files; ZigZag, as Nelson demonstrates, is truly free-form. He gets a laugh when he waxes metaphorical: “This is the sexual revolution brought to the spreadsheet. In a spreadsheet, society required that a cell have an up connection, a down connection, a left connection and a right connection. In this system each cell’s connections are its own business.”
He posits other uses: as an outliner for writing, or for control panels on cameras and other consumer devices (see sidebar: “Software for Wearable Computers: Ted Nelson to Go?”), providing easily grouped and branched options, like spokes on interconnected wheels instead of the exclusionary choices often encountered on menu- or icon-based readouts. Although the intention is to simplify, Nelson occasionally gets caught up in his own highly detailed vision; he uses with abandon words he invented–“negward” and “posward”–without pausing to explain.