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8/11/2006
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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.

As The Worm Turns
Technology that infiltrates our daily lives and changes us qualifies as great. My next candidate meets that criterion, even if it's a loathsome piece of software. In 1988, the Morris worm raced around the Internet, infiltrating university servers and closing offices. Cornell student Robert Morris now says he made the worm so he could gauge the size of the Internet. Right.

Like most software, the worm theoretically could run in only one or two targeted environments, but it ended up illustrating something new about the Net. The worm could spread itself from server to server by exploiting a buffer overflow vulnerability in Sendmail. We didn't realize at the time how many back doors and defensive gaps lingered in Unix, Sendmail, Finger, and other systems. The worm also continuously queried servers and, in random cases, replicated itself. Morris said he added that feature to guarantee that his worm would spread. He succeeded.

As a piece of software, this intruder was a breakthrough, an eye-opening demonstration of what brilliant software might do on the anti-social side of the Internet. We were all starting to become interconnected; we all needed a wake-up call. Congratulations, Mr. Morris. The Great Worm proved an incontrovertible alarm and accurate forecaster. It was great software.

Was Sabre a winner because of science or bias--or both?

Was Sabre a winner because of science or bias--or both?


Photo courtesy of American Airlines
American Airlines' Sabre system was great, showing how software could evolve beyond the tactical needs of business and into the strategic. Sabre had the ability to match a customer's travel needs with the flights available at a travel agent's office. Its listings also included flights from American's competitors. The system saved American and travel agents time and money, and it helped the carrier steal market share. American found that by giving its own flights higher position on search screens, they were selected more frequently, so it corrupted Sabre's search mechanisms to give its own flights priority. American called it "screen science." The U.S. government called it "screen bias" and banned the practice. Sabre blazed a path on both counts: business strategy and business bias. With the advent of the Internet, searching for flights would reappear as Travelocity's customer self-service. And general-purpose search engines would implement pay-for-placement search results.

The Top Three
So how do I rank my candidates on a list from 1-12? In descending order, the greatest software ever written is:

12. The Morris worm
11. Google search rank
10. Apollo guidance system
9. Excel spreadsheet
8. Macintosh OS
7. Sabre system
6. Mosaic browser
5. Java language
4. IBM System 360 OS
That leaves my third, second, and top-most choices still to go. So here they are:

No. 3 is the gene-sequencing software at the Institute for Genomic Research. It isn't a mammoth software system, but "on sheer technical brilliance, it gets 10 out of 10," Morgenthaler says. The institute's sequencing system helped subdivide the task of understanding the DNA makeup of 20,000 human genes. Its breakthrough insights into the human genome and sequencing analysis, plus its ability to recombine subunits of analysis into the whole, "accelerated the science of genomics by at least a decade," Morgenthaler says. We now have the tools to begin tracing the paths of human migration out of Africa. The human genome reveals how minute the genetic differences are between ethnic groups at a time when such information is sorely needed. It gives a scientific basis for how humans can view each other as brothers at a time when we seem in danger of destroying one another. The software will be called on to perform many additional gene sequencing feats; the roots of many diseases and puzzles of heredity remain to be solved. Seldom have great research and great software been more closely intertwined.

My No. 2 choice is IBM's System R, a research project at the company's Almaden Research Lab in San Jose, Calif., that gave rise to the relational database. In the 1970s, Edgar Codd looked at the math of set theory and conceived a way to apply it to data storage and retrieval. Sets are related elements that together make up an abstract whole. The set of colors blue, white, and red, for example, are related elements that together make up the colors of the French flag. A relational database, using set theory, can keep elements related without storing them in a separate and clearly labeled bin. It also can find all the elements of a set on an impromptu basis while knowing only one unique identifier about the set.

System R and all that flowed from it--DB2, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Sybase, PostgreSQL, MySQL, and others--will have an impact that we're still just beginning to feel. Relational databases can both store data sets about customers and search other sets of data to find how particular customers shop. The data is entered into the database as it's acquired; the database finds relationships hidden in the data. The relational database and its SQL access language let us do something the human mind has found almost impossible: locate a broad set of related data without remembering much about its content, where it's stored, or how it's related. All that's needed is one piece of information, a primary key that allows access to the set. I like System R for its incredible smoothness of operation, its scalability, and its overwhelming usefulness to those who deal with masses of data. It's software with a rare air of mathematical truth about it.

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Olivia Sanches
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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
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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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