What's the Greatest Software Ever Written?

Summary from InformationWeek (08/14/06) No. 1101, P. 39; Charles Babcock

Text from ACM's TechNews, Aug. 16, 2006.

Charles Babcock evaluates what he considers to be the greatest software programs ever written based on such wide-ranging criteria as historical context, real-world adoption, and social impact.

He rates Unix--specifically, Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) 4.3-- as the single greatest piece of software ever created in view of its effects on the world. The software traces its roots to Bell Labs researcher Ken Thompson's Uniplexed Information and Computing System (Unics), which facilitated the simultaneous use of a computer by two people, and was rechristened Unix with the addition of text formatting. Bill Joy and other researchers would add to Unix, and their extensions were compiled into BSD, of which version 4.3 is "the single biggest undergirder of the Internet," according to Babcock.

The second greatest piece of software is IBM's System R, the root architecture of the relational database, while the third greatest piece of software is the

gene-sequencing software at the Institute for Genomic Research, which is credited for "accelerating the science of genomics by at least a decade," according to venture capitalist Gary Morgenthaler.

Other breakthroughs cited by Babcock include the

MIT Instrumentation Lab's Apollo spacecraft guidance system, which could operate on a tiny amount of available memory;

Google's page-ranking search application;

the Java language, which made the use of intermediate byte code fashionable; the

IBM System 360 operating system, which introduced the concurrent operation of different applications on one computer system;

the Morris worm, which demonstrated the hazards of increasing interconnectedness and the vulnerability of the Internet; the

Mosaic browser, which brought what Babcock terms "a fresh technical synthesis" by combining address lines, mouse-based pointing and clicking, multimedia file displays, and hyperlinking in windows; and

American Airlines' Sabre system, which showed that software could bridge the gap between tactical and strategic business needs.