|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [hangout] Software Roots - Collaberation
March 9, 2003 The Ascent of the Software Civilization By STEVE LOHR
TECHNOLOGY euphoria was in the air and stock prices were
stratospheric. The shares of some software and computer services companies
jumped a hundredfold in a few years. "Never before has the stock market
shown quite so much enthusiasm about an industry," a writer for Fortune
The year was 1968.
History may provide no sure guide to the future, but it does offer
context and insight for the present. And, given the proper twist, history
glimmers with a certain knowing humor. In his incisive, panoramic book,
"From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the
Software Industry" (MIT Press, $29.95), Martin Campbell-Kelly delivers
all three ? context, insight, even occasional humor. His treatment of
the similarity in the computer mania of the late 1960's and the Internet
bubble of the late 1990's is one many telling observations.
Mr. Campbell-Kelly's book is not for everyone. He is an instructor
in computer science at the University of Warwick in England and is
a professional historian. His is not a book of insider gossip or of
recreated scenes of clashing egos and executive tirades ? the stuff
of so many business books. Instead, it is the product of his reading
and distilling of books, professional journals, magazine and newspaper
articles and historical archives over the last four decades.
The result is a sweeping survey of the software business since the early
1950's, its evolving structure, economics and marketing. The product and
company names are so numerous that, at times, they seem to race by in a
blur ? Cincom, Cullinane, Panosophic, Cytation, Famicom, Xenix, Comshare,
Syncsort, Super- Writer, MacNeal-Schwendler and hundreds more. The book
is a ready reference for any misguided soul who wants to create a computer
Yet, along the way, Mr. Campbell-Kelly pauses for longer passages
on subjects ranging from the role of the government's SAGE air
defense-and-surveillance system to the decision by I.B.M. in 1969 to
"unbundle" hardware and software sales. The unbundling was "a turning
point," the author says, because it ensured a sizable software industry
separate from hardware.
Mr. Campbell-Kelly gives the United States government credit for creating
a market for programmers in the 1950's and early 1960's with SAGE, a
name derived from "semiautomatic ground environment." About $150 million
was spent on its software, and thousands of programmers were trained
to work on the project ? a veritable "university for programmers." Its
alumni went off to populate corporate data centers and to start companies
elsewhere. SAGE also tackled a host of technical problems in real-time
transaction processing that eased the way for I.B.M.'s development
of the Sabre online reservations system, called "the Kid's SAGE," for
Time and again, the book shows that what seems new in the software
industry in fact echoes the past. The engineers who used software
formed user groups starting in the 1950's with SHARE, whose members
came from companies that used I.B.M. 704 computers. The group's name,
though capitalized, was not an acronym. It was what the group did;
it shared programs and expertise to help drive down programming costs.
This was when software was treated as a marketing cost of hardware
instead of as a stand-alone product. But, as the author writes, "one of
the abiding legacies of the user groups was the perception of software as
a free good." In their attitude and behavior, the user groups were very
similar to those engaged in today's open-source software projects like
GNU Linux, an operating system that is distributed free and is steadily
improved and debugged by a network of programmers.
IN the late 1960's and early 70's, there was great excitement about
? and investment in ? the notion of computing as a utility-like service
that could be delivered to offices and homes to solve all manner of
problems. The idea flopped because it proved to be too complex a challenge
to write the software needed to distribute computing as a service from
a central time-shared machine to many users. Besides, microcomputers,
later called personal computers, were about to arrive, putting affordable
computing on desktops thanks to the miracle of the microprocessor.
Today, the utility concept is making a comeback. This time, the
industry is betting that 30 years of advances in software, hardware
and networking can deliver utility computing. I.B.M. is promoting "on
demand" computing, and Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and others have
similar offerings. Companies like Salesforce.com are offering software
as a service in an emerging market for so-called application service
providers, or A.S.P.'s. "Because the concept was never fully tested
in the 1970's," Mr. Campbell-Kelly writes, "history has few lessons to
offer the A.S.P. industry." Well, the A.S.P. start-ups certainly hope so.
As software became a product in its own right, marketing became more
important. In the fledgling personal computer industry, some of the
tactics were particularly inventive. In 1980, George Tate, a former
electronics industry salesman, began marketing a database program he
named dBase II. There was no "I," but "II" suggested a second, improved
product. This ploy was not uncommon. But in 1983, Mr. Tate took the more
imaginative leap, renaming his company Ashton-Tate.
"There was no Ashton," the author writes, "but it was considered a
euphonious and high-sounding name."
Mr. Campbell-Kelly argues convincingly that Microsoft's stature in
the software industry as a whole tends to be overstated. After all,
he notes, Microsoft dominates only about 10 percent of the industry,
while it has no such sway over large portions of the software business
like corporate software, software contractors and consultants.
"If this book serves no other purpose," he writes, "I hope it will serve
as a corrective to the common misconception that Microsoft is the center
of the software universe around which all else revolves."
Mr. Campbell-Kelly is dismissive of the federal antitrust suit filed
in 1998. "Exactly why the action was brought remains a mystery," he
writes. He is fastidious with footnotes, but there are none near that
sentence. It's his opinion, period.
He may not understand the Microsoft antitrust suit, but he lucidly
analyzes Microsoft's mastery of using software and business acumen to
build a lucrative technology platform. In Microsoft's case, of course,
the technology platform is the Windows operating system. The company
encouraged and helped software developers write programs that run on the
Microsoft platform, increasing the value of Windows and prompting even
more applications to be written on top of Windows. Economists call this
commercial snowball "network effects."
It is nothing new, really. I.B.M., as Mr. Campbell-Kelly explains, did
the same thing with its operating system for the I.B.M. 360 mainframe
and follow-on products.
And Sony, in video game consoles, deftly used software to build its
technology platform and a thriving ecosystem of game developers supporting
its PlayStation platform. Once Sony mastered the economics of software,
Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog never had a chance.
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