Software Revolution

As we look around ourselves today and ask the question, what in the past 40 years has influenced our civilization the most. Not too far down the list you would definitely find "computer revolution" as one of the key players. This revolution is not delimited by the meteoric advance in cold-hardware, but rather the fusion of both hardware and software. Without the artistic creativity of software-engineers, computers might have still, to this day occupied a very small niche in government programs. Steve Lohr in his book Go To: discusses in great detail how several programmers have contributed to turning computing into what we know it as today.

One of the first great foundation stones of programming was a new medium of letting man talk to the machine. FORTRAN, the new programming language was developed by a small team at IBM. The FORTRAN team was lead and organized by John Backrus and consisted of additional members from a range of different backgrounds, such as MIT, United Aircraft, and Bell Labs. John was an unconventional young man with some discontent for formality and authority, this discontent was later reflected in the way he managed the team. There was a relaxed oversight and no formal budget to speak of.

Through his years at IBM John had grown tierd of writing software the ordinary way. Up to this time programmers had been composing their instructions for the computer in assembly, a very technical language that required a great deal of time to write even a smaller program. Together with his team Backrus set out to make programming easier, even for people with no specialized training.

The concept of a highlevel language was not well received during a pre-release PR-campaign. No one believed that a computer could turn high level instructions into efficient computer code, not even pioneer computer scientist Grace Hopper. She commented that it was "wishful thinking". The team was not hindered by the pessimism; instead they focused on their own goal and were confident they could pull of the job.

Designing the frontend of FORTRAN was no small feat. There were no wide conventions on how a highlevel language should look nor was there a great understanding of the best way to present a problem to the computer. Using their creative abilities, with the user in mind, the pioneers decided to combine a set of algebraic notations together with simple acronyms to make up the language commands. The backend, compiler, required the logical approach of an engineer. Because of the computing limitations at this time the efficiency of a compiler could make or break a language. The team spent a substantial amount of time optimizing the compiler, and as it would be later found out, they did a tremendous job.

After the completion of the language a benchmark test was run. Several FORTRAN compiled programs were put to the test in relation to hand-coded ones. FORTRAN did not disappoint, it wan almost as efficiently as the hand-coded ones. And the fact that debugging and writing in FORTRAN required much less expensive machine time soon made it a great hit.

The most recent revolution in computing is arguable the Open Source software movement. There have been many men who have been tagged as the idols of the Open Source movement but none of them equal the statue of Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds. Both Stallman and Torvalds have created two very widely used open source programs which are most often combined to make one solid operating system, GNU Linux. Although rivals they do share a certain passion for letting apt users to modify software from source to their liking.

Open Source is a new explosion in software development. Developers from all around the world collectively write software. With no one in control the developers have a great sense of freedom. Their goal is not to put out a program for sale on a dead line but rather to make programs which they are comfortable using. The developers are themselves, the users. This concept ultimately allows the programmers the luxury of expressing artistic and engineering talents through code. The comradery bred in an organization similar to that of the early developers, who were all radical fans of computing.

Open Source projects are often time "free" in both meanings of the word, free as in freedom (to modify) and free as in beer (to distribute). It is this fact that is making many software development companies worried. Who would buy software if they can get alternatives for free? Microsoft and SCO have been engaging in both a legal and social campaign to bring down the movement, and protect their profits. IBM on the other hand is going with the flow. Seeing that the open source is here to stay, they are instead focusing on selling hardware with pre-installed and optimized open source packages. In addition to this, they sell tech support, a service industry approach to software.

As a result of the hard work and dedication of the pioneers, software has evolved at an amazing pace. In just 40 years the world has been transformed. Virtually everything in one way or another is run on or at least aided by software

  2004-10-09T00:07:41