The 10 Most Influential Software Programs of All Time

Slate's Culture Blog
July 30 2013 8:47 AM

The 10 Most Influential Software Programs Ever

154857253
Kimmy Parris, 21, dressed as a Creeper from Minecraft ahead of the MCM London Comic Con Expo in 2012

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Should the Library of Congress be compiling a list of the most influential software of all time, just as it does annually for the National Film Registry and the National Recording Registry? This idea was raised at a recent meeting the Library sponsored on the long-term preservation of computer software for its cultural and historical significance. How to even begin? Restrict it to applications only, no operating systems? Home computers only? What about industrial and enterprise software? What about the software in your car or on a 777? What about software that comes to you nowadays as a service, like YouTube and Twitter? What about mobile apps?

Clearly no list of 100 applications, let alone 10, is going to be adequate. Nonetheless, any list can be a starting point for discussion. So here’s mine, with all the bias of a kid who grew up in the Reagan ’80s with an Apple IIe. Got a list of your own? Give it to us in the comments—we’d love to see it.

Advertisement

1. SABRE (IBM, 1964). The descendent of the Air Force’s fabled SAGE program, SABRE solved a problem for which computers were ideally suited: airline reservations. Just-in-time inventory tracking, real-time data management, distributed enterprise systems? SABRE and American Airlines were there first. 

2. Maze War (1973). Never heard of it? The first first-person shooter, complete with level editors and LAN parties (well, networked play). Maze War, programmed by Steve Colley on an Imlac PDS-1 at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, allowed players (who rendered as giant floating eyeballs) to stalk their opponents through a first-person vector-drawn maze. And shoot them.

3. Adventure (1975), aka Colossal Cave. Just as Maze War introduced us to first-person virtual space, Adventure gave us the second-person person interactive address. Originally programmed by Will Crowther on a PDP-10 in 1975 and expanded a year or so later by Don Woods, Adventure, with its iconic scenes and puzzles,  was the first encounter many of us had with computers as places, places one could . . . well, like a cave, explore. I vividly remember that nasty little dwarf tossing his axe at me—at me!—and the visceral thrill that sent up my adolescent spine.

4. VisiCalc (VisiCorp, 1979). The original killer app was a spreadsheet? Yep. And if you think it was just about adding stuff up, you’re missing the point. VisiCalc was about imagining a fully quantified life, recorded on a canvas of capacious length and breadth, all of it programmable. Think of it as a fantasy of order and control. After all, you can make a lot out of rows and columns—even a Matrix.

5. WordStar (MicroPro, 1979). There are many word processors (or text editors) that could make this list: HES/FRESS, brainchild of Andy van Dam and Ted Nelson at Brown; Bravo, the experimental Xerox PARC program which gave us WYSIWYG; EMACS, cornerstone of the free software movement; WordPerfect or Word, which elsewhere I’ve called the No. 2 pencil of the digital age. But the CP/M-based WordStar gets the nod, not only for being the first home word-processing system to truly capture the market, but also for introducing a generation of literary authors to computers, among them Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Anne Rice, Ralph Ellison, and George R. R. Martin (who still uses it today).

6. Hypercard (Apple, 1987). What do the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur have in common with experimental electronic writing? They both run on HyperCard, software which used to come built in on all Macintoshes. HyperCard brought Vannevar Bush’s original conception of a “Memex”—a workspace for organizing information according to associate “trails”—to the desktop. But HyperCard was much more than just a visual metaphor; it also had a scripting language, placing the language of interactive behaviors in the hands of millions of users. Author John McDaid used it to write a tricked-out multimedia extravaganza called Uncle Buddy’s Phantom Funhouse. And yes, it’s true: The lighting in the Petronas Towers is reportedly controlled by HyperCard.

7. Photoshop (Adobe Systems, 1988). What word processing did for text, image editors did for pictures. And while Photoshop was not the first, it has entered the popular lexicon as evidence of the radical skepticism toward the previous gold-standard of visual photographic evidence: “No way, that’s been Photoshopped.”

8. Lotus Notes (IBM, 1989). Social media before its time, this client-server package included chat, blogging, micro-blogging, and forums as well as email, calendars, to-do lists, and lots more that we’d nowadays recognize as lifehacking. Not the sexiest pick for this list perhaps, but we couldn’t imagine computers without all the things Lotus Notes did.

9. Mosaic (NCSA, 1993). Mosaic was transitional software, the stepping stone between the text-only Lynx, which was how the World-Wide Web was originally conceived and accessed, and Netscape Navigator, which would dominate the browser market in the Web’s early public years. But between them came Mosaic, the software famously written by a UIUC undergraduate named Marc Andreessen. Mosaic was the first graphical Web browser. Suddenly all the links were blue, suddenly every home page had a GIF cat.

10. Minecraft (Mojang, 2009). Remember how Douglas Coupland built the plot of Microserfs around a 3-D virtual Lego modeling kit? Here you have it, only 15 years or so later. Minecraft is the extrusion of the kind of world we first glimpsed in the tunnels and caverns of Adventure, now fully immersive and interactive. And social.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?