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What's The Greatest Software Ever Written?

Witness the definitive, irrefutable, immutable ranking of the most brilliant software programs ever hacked.

Search for Intelligence
There ought to be many examples of great software in the field of artificial intelligence. At one time, AI was going to produce a humanlike intelligence that could talk back to us, teach us things we didn't understand, and combine great reasoning power with command of endless data. What was the outcome for AI? Too much artifice, not enough intelligence.

Neural nets, which arose from AI research, produced automated fingerprint identification systems used worldwide. That's good pattern-matching, but is it actual intelligence? I don't see the logic.

Colossus: The greatest software never written

Colossus: The greatest software never written
The AI application that produced the first real breakthrough was the inference engine, a system with a knowledge base of conditions and rules. Such a computer can match a condition, such as a 104-degree fever in a patient, to a rule, such as the fact that bacterial infections cause high fevers. One of the best, the Mycin medical diagnosis system, could correctly identify bacterial infections in people based on their symptoms 65% of the time. That's better than most nonspecialized physicians. But it never moved out of the lab into popular use. No one knew who to sue when it was wrong.

My favorite AI package was IBM's Deep Blue program, which defeated chess Grand Champion Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. Kasparov complained that Deep Blue had humans helping it behind the scenes, and he was right. IBM programmers were furiously revising Deep Blue between games to adjust it to Kasparov's playing style. That knocks Deep Blue off my list of candidates for great software. The IBM activity was within the rules but shouldn't have been. How was Kasparov supposed to compete? Rejigger his brain circuits?

AI software can be impressive, but all my examples fall short of being among the greatest.

I sometimes describe the browser as an emotionally handicapped dumb terminal. My brother, Wally, a research librarian, has convinced me that Mosaic, as the first graphical browser, "moved the Web out of the land of the tech weenies and into the world of ordinary humans." One predecessor, Gopher, is an example of a near miss, and then there was ViolaWWW, the first browser with buttons for moving backward and forward through Web pages.

But Mosaic's combination of address lines, mouse-based pointing and clicking, multimedia file displays, and hyperlinking in its window meant clients had finally found a perfect partnership with the information servers proliferating on the Internet. Mosaic combined elements for ease of use--the tool bar at the top and a set of pull-down menus--in a format that would be repeated in Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, and Firefox (in your Explorer window, select Help on the menu bar, click on About Internet Explorer, and a credit to Mosaic comes up). Technical brilliance? Not exactly, but a sorely needed, fresh technical synthesis. In other words, great software that opened the floodgates.

Can the same be said of the World Wide Web itself? Tim Berners-Lee produced a synthesis of hypertext linking, universal resource locator, and HTML page display that impacted our world, well, hugely. But the Web copied existing ideas, which are all dependent on the underlying TCP/IP network protocols and BIND (Berkeley Internet Domain) domain name servers--the close-to-the-metal software that makes routers work. Nope, the Web isn't great software. But it sure pushes the needle off the scale when it comes to popular impact.

User's Delight
Continuing into modern times, Google, in one aspect at least, represents great software. Search predated Google in the form of Lycos, Digital Equipment's AltaVista, and other engines. But Google incorporated a page-ranking structure into search results, assigning thousands of pages returned by the search engine a hierarchy reflecting their frequency of use. "The value of an academic paper is measured by the number of times it's mentioned in other papers and footnotes. Google adapted that convention to the Web," says Morgenthaler of Morgenthaler Ventures. It also moved a valuable information-structuring tool into the hands of millions of new users. That's great software.

Deep Blue had an artificial advantage--human tinkering

Deep Blue had an artificial advantage--human tinkering

Photo by Stan Hondal/AFP
I once thought of Sun's Java as a derivative language, a member of the C family that refined conventions already in existence. Upon reflection, I now know I was wrong. Java implemented the virtual machine on clients, allowing code to move over networks and run at a destination PC without knowing much about the machine itself. Java instituted the use of intermediate byte code, a form of source code that's been precompiled, which allows its translation to machine code just as it reaches the client. That equates to portability and performance. Java restricted the downloaded code to a sandbox, or set of boundaries--the client's hard drive, for example, was strictly off limits. The sandbox saved users from security exposures they had experienced with unrestricted Microsoft Active X controls.

With these network-oriented features, Java swept into the business world at the dawn of the Internet era. Microsoft copied all of Java's best ideas when it made Visual Studio .Net. For Java to be first bitterly opposed, then embraced and extended, now that's a sure sign of greatness.

What about software that's a little more user-focused, like desktop publishing? Desktop publishing was made possible by Adobe Systems' PostScript, which could digitally format type and images either at a computer or inside a laser printer. Adobe had simplified the professional typesetting system that came out of Xerox's Silicon Valley research facility, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, achieving the right blend of simplicity and clean operation in PostScript. It made desktop publishing commonplace. Nicely done, but not enough of a technical breakthrough to be called great software.

Speaking of Xerox Parc, the Apple Macintosh was based on the Alto system built there. Alto included the first windowing interface, the first mouse, and first unified graphical user interface. But it never made it to market. It took an Apple redesign to give it impact. I can still remember the first time I sat down at a Macintosh at a hole-in-the-wall computer shop in Endicott, N.Y. I got that "rocket science" feeling: I could see what it was doing, but I couldn't believe it. The Mac incorporated the power of object-oriented computing into the user interface, and users have never looked back. The first Mac operating system was great software.

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Olivia Sanches
Olivia Sanches,
User Rank: Strategist
6/6/2018 | 9:29:59 AM
Re: A good list. OS/360 might be an addition
I agree, OS/360 is certainly the best program ever written
Andrew Binstock
Andrew Binstock,
User Rank: Author
5/2/2014 | 1:35:16 PM
A good list. OS/360 might be an addition
A good list that will surely invite controversy!

One entry worthy of consideration is OS/360, the OS for the IBM 360. It was far ahead of its time and was the basis of most computing for the next 15 years. Fred Brooks's observartions of the software development process used there formed the basis of his book The Mythical Man-Month.
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