The 10 Most Influential Software Programs of All Time

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July 30 2013 8:47 AM

The 10 Most Influential Software Programs Ever

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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.

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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.

Matthew Kirschenbaum is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is currently completing a book titled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing for Harvard University Press.

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