Friday, November 21, 2008
Martin Campbell-Kelly: From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog (2003)
[Business software] SAP R/3 “runs the back offices of half of the world’s 500 top companies. . . . An estimated 1.5 million workers around the world used R/3 in their primary job function. If overnight R/3 were to cease to exist . . . the industrial economy of the Western world would come to a halt, and it would take years for substitutes to close the breach in the networked economy. Were Microsoft’s products to vaporize overnight, it would take only days or weeks to find substitutes, and the economic disruption would be modest.” Another volume of the high quality MIT Press series on the history of computing, Campbell-Kelly's book is a history of the software industry. Software industry, not software. As a result, little attention is given to the technical details of software, major innovations in programming and how they changed the use of computers, and certain periods, such as the early years of the computer (1945-1960) when hardware and software were not totally distinct. The volume is still helpful for providing a necessary history of the industry that has historically supported the most ephemeral and immaterial aspect of computing: its software and programs. During the 1950s and part of the 1960s, early computer manufacturers tended to include software with their machines for free as a form of marketing aimed at making computers enticing to users. They encouraged user groups that shared programs and knowledge in programming, and most of the additional programming was performed by the users themselves through their large teams of in-house programmers. During this period, a small number of software contractors competitively bid on expensive government projects such as the SAGE air defense system, providing high-cost, unique applications. During the 1960s, in addition to providing software, what would now be called the software industry provided a number of alternative resources, such as service bureaus that could be hired to do a company's data processing, facilities managers that would come in and run a company's computers, and teleprocessing computer utilities, which would allow multiple customers to access a single mainframe using telephones. With the explosion in the number of computers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, custom programming was no longer viable, so manufacturers started offering general packages that would be used by a wide variety of customers. In 1970, IBM decided to "unbundle" its software, which involved no longer including its software for free with its hardware. IBM continued to offer its operating systems and other systems software for free (or rather, tacitly incorporated the cost into the price of the computer), but opened up the field for other vendors to offer applications software. During this period, the idea of the software "product" emerged, which has remained until today. In the late 1960s there was a bubble of investment in software company stocks, but this crashed in the early 1970s, and the software industry remained fairly stagnant/steady during the 1970s due to limited funding opportunities, but exploded again in the early 1980s with the birth of the personal computer. Campbell-Kelly throughout wants to refute the image of Microsoft dominating and representing the entire software industry. He pays particular attention to the software firms that provided programs for corporations during the mainframe era and those that have provided the non-Microsoft-Office products that are essential for contemporary businesses using personal computers. He brings forth an industry that has provided the information infrastructure for American corporations over the last 50 years, an industry that remains along with its programs largely hidden from the public's sight.