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9/26/2006
04:37 AM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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'Greatest Software' Story Triggers An Outpouring Of Recollections

When the story "What's The Greatest Software Ever Written?" appeared Aug. 14, it set off an explosion of memories from those involved in the early stages of computing. For example, one responder asked, "Do you recall the big board of the IBM 407 key punch processor into which the red, green, blue and yellow wires--each a different length--were inserted?" Hey, I may have learned to program with IBM punch cards, but I don't go back to wires-through-a-board.

When the story "What's The Greatest Software Ever Written?" appeared Aug. 14, it set off an explosion of memories from those involved in the early stages of computing. For example, one responder asked, "Do you recall the big board of the IBM 407 key punch processor into which the red, green, blue and yellow wires--each a different length--were inserted?" Hey, I may have learned to program with IBM punch cards, but I don't go back to wires-through-a-board.Here's what people remembered and recommended from their experiences as we identified some of the greatest software ever written.

Many people liked the choice of the 1984 Apple Macintosh operating system, but Michael Bell of Las Vegas reminded me that "the Lisa predated the Mac." The Apple Lisa came out in 1983 at a price of $9,999; the Macintosh followed on its heels at a quarter of the price. "About 13,000 Lisas sold in the first year. But Lisa 1 and the Lisa 2 only sold about 40,000 in 1984 when the Mac was introduced," as the Mac quickly gained preeminence, wrote Michael Bell of Las Vegas.

"I always saw the Lisa as a stepping stone to the Mac," added Ronald Brown, a network consultant in Casco, Maine.

Actually, I talked a newspaper in Binghamton, N.Y., into buying one of those Lisas in 1984 after demonstrating how we could compose our own charts and graphs with it. The Lisa salesman had brought in his own printer for the demonstration, which was pretty smart because Apple hadn't gotten around to writing a driver for the printer used by the newspaper. I overlooked that fact in recommending the purchase. Perhaps it's just as well I left town before it became clear that the promised driver, an alleged work in progress, was never going to materialize.

Although I put Java on the list, many writers had their own computer language favorites. Bob Schnatterly wrote that Borland's Delphi "insulated the developer from having to know all the grisly details of the underlying Windows screen and component drawing mechanisms."

Which reminds me, it's a shame that Borland is planning on getting out of development tools when it once produced great tools like TurboPascal and Delphi.

Another writer, Mark Lomas, information security officer of Arabella for I.T. Services Ltd. in London, offered an example of a non-Java system that used byte code. Byte code, of course, is how Java achieves its portability, but the byte code-based P-System that ran byte code in a virtual machine was available in the late 1970s. "I suggest that P-code, used by the University of California at San Diego's P-System, is an earlier example" of one of Java's chief assets, Lomas wrote, and he's right.

The P-System could run on an Apple II, Xerox 820, or Digital Equipment PDP-11. P-Code was produced primarily with UCSD Pascal. So what happened to the P-System and its P-Code? It was too far ahead of its time. The west wing of the computer science museum on the San Diego campus is dedicated to it.

Probably the most popular nominee from respondents was Cobol, the language that moved computer programming away from assembly and other machine code languages toward a more English-like syntax. Cobol stands for Common Business Language and not, as some have suggested, Compiles Only Because of Luck.

"Even though I work for American Airlines, I would boot Sabre [which made it onto the Greatest list] and replace it with Cobol," wrote in "Ken." "Max Hopper's Sabre may have revolutionized airline reservations, but Grace Hopper's Cobol revolutionized computer programming."

Ken has a point. Half of the new mission-critical business applications are still written in Cobol, Gartner estimated not too long ago. That's because of its speed and proven reliability.

Cobol also has the legacy of Grace Hopper behind it. Hopper came up with many of the ideas that were incorporated into Cobol, even if she put them into her language for Remington Rand called Flow-Matic. Hopper is the only programmer I know of who, by dint of clear thinking, leadership, and perseverance at her craft, became a rear admiral in the Navy.

Hal Smith wrote that Cobol "has probably done more useful work cycles than any other product ever. Yeah, it's ugly, verbose and can be arcane. But this is no worse than C++, Java, or, heaven forbid, APL."

Lisp got a few votes, as did Software AG's Natural, but the runner-up to Cobol was Fortran. This language introduced the concept of subroutines to computer languages, the first step in breaking apart the sequential program into something that allowed the processor, in the midst of thousands of lines of code, to pause and go do something else before proceeding. Object-oriented programming eventually flowed from that break in the monolithic program.

I know all about Fortran because as a journalist, I wanted to learn what computers could do and was advised to sign up for a Fortran course. I didn't know what I was getting into but learned a lot. I learned computers couldn't necessarily do what my Fortran programs wanted them to do.

The choice of Berkeley Software Distribution 4.3 as the greatest software system ever didn't sit well with some. Unix is a system "written by nerds for nerds," said the president of a small business, who was thankful to be surrounded by computers running a system he could understand, Windows.

But Barry Katz, coming out of the University of Illinois in the mid-1960s, became part of a team of realtors that wrote an accounting system for Omnibus Real Estate Inc. in Chicago, and he looks at Unix the other way around. His office felt it was easier for him to learn the Digital Equipment PDP 8 than it was to hire a programmer and teach him the real-estate business. The real-estate accounting system was migrated to six Altos, the brand that sprang out of work at Xerox Parc--"they keep going and going and going (I only wish the PCs ran so well)." Omnibus currently runs Unix System V, Release 3.

"For years, friends and business associates have kidded me about running Unix. After all, the computer world was destined to be Microsoft PC based! Who would ever run Unix? I wish I could get them all to read your article. I wish they really knew how much of the Internet runs on Unix servers. What do they think Linux really is?" he wrote, and I couldn't have said it any better myself.

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