History of software

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Software can be defined as programs stored in the memory of stored-program digital computers. The outline for what would be the first software was written by Ada Lovelace in the 19th century but was never created. Alan Turing is credited with being the first person to come up with a theory for software, which led to the two academic fields of computer science and software engineering. The first software created used binary code for instructions, but other programmers used mechanisms like switches and hole-punched cards. Early on, it was very expensive when it was in low quantities, but as it became more popular in the 1980's, prices dropped significantly. It went from being an item that only belonged to the elite to the majority of the population owning one. Software would not be where it is today without Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two pioneers in the industry that had monumental impacts on the history of software.

Before stored-program digital computers[edit]

Origins of computer science[edit]

An outline (algorithm) for what would have been the first piece of software was written by Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, for the planned Analytical Engine. However, neither the Analytical Engine, nor any software for it, were ever created.

The first theory about software - prior to the creation of computers as we know them today - was proposed by Alan Turing in his 1935 essay Computable numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem).[1]

This eventually led to the creation of the twin academic fields of computer science and software engineering, which both study software and its creation. Computer science is more theoretical (Turing's essay is an example of computer science), whereas software engineering is focused on more practical concerns.

However, prior to 1946, software as we now understand it - programs stored in the memory of stored-program digital computers - did not yet exist. The very first electronic computing devices were instead rewired in order to "reprogram" them - see History of computing hardware.

Early days of computer software (1946-1979)[edit]

In his manuscript "A Mathematical theory of Communication", Claude Shannon (1916-2001) provided an outline for how binary logic could be implemented to program a computer. Subsequently, the first computer programmers used binary code to instruct computers to perform various tasks. Nevertheless, the process was very arduous. Computer programmers had to enter long strings of binary code to tell the computer what data to store. Other methods that computer programmers used were much more laborious such as with the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine. Computer programmers literally had to load information onto computers using various tedious mechanisms, including flicking switches or punching holes at predefined positions in cards and loading these punched cards into a computer. With such methods, if a mistake was made, the whole program might have to be loaded again from the beginning.

Early software was often custom-written for or by particular customers.

Bundling of software with hardware and its legal issues[edit]

Later, software was sold to multiple customers by being bundled with the hardware by Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Data General, Digital Equipment and IBM. When a customer bought a minicomputer, at that time the smallest computer on the market, the computer did not come with Pre-installed software, but needed to be installed by engineers employed by the OEM.[citation needed] Most companies[clarification needed] had their software on the books for 0 dollars, unable to claim it as an asset (this is similar to financing of popular music in those days).[citation needed]

This bundling attracted the attention of US antitrust regulators, who sued IBM for improper "tying" in 1969, alleging that it was an antitrust violation that customers who wanted to obtain its software had to also buy or lease its hardware in order to do so. Although the case was dropped by the US Justice Department after many years of attrition as "without merit", IBM started selling software separately anyway. This began the age of commercial software.

Very quickly, commercial software started to be pirated, and commercial software producers were very unhappy at this. Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft, was an early moraliser against software piracy with his famous Open Letter to Hobbyists in 1976.

Data General also encountered legal problems related to bundling - although in this case, it was due to a civil suit from a would-be competitor. When Data General introduced the Data General Nova, a company called Digidyne wanted to use its RDOS operating system on its own hardware clone. Data General refused to license their software (which was hard to do, since it was on the books as a free asset), and claimed their "bundling rights". The US Supreme Court set a precedent called Digidyne v. Data General in 1985, and the Supreme Court let a 9th circuit decision stand, and Data General was eventually forced into licensing the operating system because it was ruled that restricting the license to only DG hardware was an illegal tying arrangement.[2] Unable to sustain the loss from lawyer's fees, Data General ended up being taken over by EMC Corporation.

The legal precedent in Digidyne v. Data General regarding bundling has never been applied to Apple, which might never have been as profitable as it is today had it been forced to license its Macintosh operating systems to competitors (although it did do so temporarily, voluntarily, on a limited scale and for a limited period of time).

Unix (1970s-)[edit]

Main article: History of Unix

Unix was an early operating system which became popular and very influential, and still exists today. The most popular variant of Unix today is Mac OS X, while Linux is closely related to Unix.

Pre-internet source code sharing[edit]

Before the Internet - and indeed in the period after the internet was created, but before it came into widespread use by the public - computer programming enthusiasts had to find other ways to share their efforts with each other, and also with potentially-interested computer users who were not themselves programmers. Such sharing techniques included distribution of tapes, such as the DECUS tapes, and later, electronic bulletin board systems. However, a particularly popular and mainstream early technique involved computer magazines.

Source code listings in computer magazines[edit]

See also: Type-in program

Tiny BASIC was published as a type-in program in Dr Dobbs Journal in 1975, and developed collaboratively (in effect, an early example of open source software, although that particular term was not to be coined until two decades later).

It was an inconvenient and slow process to manually type in source code from a computer magazine, and a single mistyped - or worse, misprinted - character could render the program inoperable, yet people still did so (optical character recognition technology to scan in the listings and obviate the need for typing was not yet available at the time).

However, even with the widespread use of cartridges and cassette tapes in the 1980s for distribution of commercial software, free programs (such as simple educational programs for the purpose of teaching programming techniques) were still often printed, because it was cheaper than manufacturing and attaching cassette tapes to each copy of a magazine. Many of today's IT professionals who were children at the time had a lifelong interest in computing in general or programming in particular sparked by such first encounters with source code.

However, eventually a combination of four factors brought this practice of printing complete source code listings of entire programs in computer magazines to an end:

  • programs started to become very large
  • floppy discs started to be used for distributing software, and then came down in price
  • more and more people started to use computers - computing became a mass market phenomenon, and most ordinary people were far less likely to want to spend hours typing in listings than the earlier enthusiasts
  • partly as a consequence of all of the above factors, computer magazines started to attach free cassette tapes, and free floppy discs, with free or trial versions of software on them, to their covers


Before the microcomputer, a successful software program typically sold up to 1,000 units at $50,000-60,000 each. By the mid-1980s, personal computer software sold thousands of copies for $50-700 each. Companies like Microsoft, MicroPro, and Lotus Development had tens of millions of dollars in annual sales.[3] Just like the auto industry, the software industry has grown from a few visionaries operating (figuratively or literally) out of their garage with prototypes. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were the Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet of their times[citation needed], who capitalized on ideas already commonly known before they started in the business. A pivotal moment in computing history was the publication in the 1980s of the specifications for the IBM Personal Computer published by IBM employee Philip Don Estridge, which quickly led to the dominance of the PC in the worldwide desktop and later laptop markets - a dominance which continues to this day.

Free and open source software[edit]

Recent developments[edit]

App stores[edit]

Main article: App store

Applications for mobile devices (cellphones and tablets) have been termed "apps" in recent years. Apple chose to funnel iPhone and iPad app sales through their App Store, and thus both vet apps, and get a cut of every paid app sold. Apple does not allow apps which could be used to circumvent their app store (e.g. virtual machines such as the Java or Flash virtual machines).

The Android platform, by contrast, has multiple app stores available for it, and users can generally select which to use (although Google Play requires a compatible or rooted device).

This move was replicated for desktop operating systems with the Ubuntu One Software Center (for Ubuntu) and the Mac App Store (for Mac OS X). Both of these platforms remain, as they have always been, non-exclusive: they allow applications to be installed from outside the app store, and indeed from other app stores.

The explosive rise in popularity of apps, for the iPhone in particular but also for Android, led to a kind of "gold rush", with some hopeful programmers dedicating a significant amount of time to creating apps in the hope of striking it rich. As in real gold rushes, not all of these hopeful entrepreneurs were successful.

How software has affected hardware[edit]

As more and more programs enter the realm of firmware, and the hardware itself becomes smaller, cheaper and faster as predicted by Moore's law, an increasing number of types of functionality of computing first carried out by software, have joined the ranks of hardware, as for example with graphics processing units. (However, the change has sometimes gone the other way for cost or other reasons, as for example with softmodems and microcode.)

Most hardware companies today have more software programmers on the payroll than hardware designers[citation needed], since software tools have automated many tasks of Printed circuit board engineers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hally, Mike (2005). Electronic brains/Stories from the dawn of the computer age. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Granta Books. p. 79. ISBN 1-86207-663-4. 
  2. ^ "Tying Arrangements and the Computer Industry: Digidyne Corp. vs. Data General". JSTOR 1372482. 
  3. ^ Caruso, Denise (1984-04-02). "Company Strategies Boomerang". InfoWorld. pp. 80–83. Retrieved 10 February 2015.