The Best Software Ever Written

>Veteran technology journalist Charles Babcock has written a terrific article for Information Week called "What's the Greatest Software Ever Written?". His selections are sure to spark a flood of e-mail responses to the weekly IT publication from software developers (who are well known to be passionate about this topic in particular). In general, though, he should get high marks from most. He's clearly done his homework.

Let's cut right to the chase and run down Babcock's 12 inaugural choices for the software hall of fame. Coming in at Number 12 is The Morris Worm. This nasty little program was crafted by a college student named Robert Morris, who when arrested by the FBI claimed that he had only the best intentions in mind when he released his worm onto the world's networks and brought machines to their knees around the globe. He said he was only attempting to determine the size of the Internet. Clever defense.

Number 11, according to Babcock, is the Google ranking algorithm. It wasn't the first search engine, not by a long shot. But it made search friendly for even the least technical among us. "The value of an academic paper is measured by the number of times it's mentioned in other papers and footnotes," one of Babcock's sources told him. "Google adapted that convention to the Web."

In a brilliant choice, in our opinion, Babcock slots NASA's Apollo guidance system at Number 10. Using 8 kilobytes of memory on a circa 1968 Raytheon computer, it controlled the systems that enabled astronauts to navigate to the moon, separate their lunar module from its docked orbiter, descend to the sphere's surface and find their way home again, in a round trip of a half million miles. Not bad for something so tiny.

Babcock's Number 9 is Microsoft Excel. His rationale? Spreadsheet programs had been around for years before the folks at Redmond took their stab at one; but when they did, they got things right. And then went about the business of making their competitors obsolete.

Number 8 on the list is the original Macintosh OS. It has been duly criticized as being derivative, taking much of its inspiration from Xerox's Alto, one of the very first personal computers. Rightly so. But greatness is also measured by success and historical impact, Babcock argues. The original Mac was a landmark OS.

The Number 7 position goes to American Airline's Sabre reservation system. It was the grand-daddy of travel service automation. Sure, it had its critics in its day, including the U.S. government's anti-trust division, but it was also revolutionary, blazing a path in tactical and strategic business applications.

Number 6 on the Babcock hit parade is the Mosaic browser. Developed by graduate students to help navigate the new World Wide Web, it created a world of its own, and we have never stopped relying on its successors ever since. Spawning everything from Netscape's Navigator to Apple's Safari, this essential app was the originator of the Internet boom.

Registering at Number 5 is the Java programming language. Critics will point to this choice and bemoan the "network programming language" (Time magazine's 1996 Product of the Year) as the Internet's first great hype machine. Babcock admits that he was an early critic of Java, but he says that he has since come around to admiring the sophistication of its approach.

He gives the IBM System 360 OS the Number 4 spot. This 1964 operating system for big iron was a revolution and a revelation. Many of the fundamentals of computer system design were ironed out by IBM in this historic project. To this day, IBM systems rely on the breakthroughs it made forty years ago.

Number 3 on the list is one of the most profound applications ever attempted: the Institute for Genomic Research's human genome sequencing program. This ambitious application set out to beat a U.S government project to map the DNA composition of 20 000 human genes. It did just that. As one of Babcock's sources commented, "[O]n sheer technical brilliance, it gets 10 out of 10."

Babcock awards the runner-up prize to IBM's System R, the progenitor of relational databases—from DB2, to Oracle, to Sybase, to MySQL, and others. It took set theory and applied it to data storage and retrieval. As a result, relational database management systems have become the underpinning of much of our modern computing infrastructure.

And last but first, Babcock crowns a multi-headed phenomenon known as the Unix family. This famous set of aunts, uncles, and cousins contains some of the most powerful and elegant coding ever created by an individual, team, corporation, or global community of collaborators. Originally, a pet project of an AT&T researcher, Ken Thompson, Unix and its descendants—notably Unix System III, Linux, and BSD 4.3—have had the broadest impact on the world of any computer programs ever written. And of all the Unix family members, in the end, Babcock selects Berkeley Software Distributions' BSD 4.3 as the single "Greatest Piece of Software Ever."

Now, let the passionate discussions begin!

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