Computers and the Internet have been the biggest revolutions in the past 20 years. While advances in semiconductors and networking have powered these changes, it is software that has been the invisible factor which has been common to both. Software has become the new physical infrastructure of the information age.
Software is there in everything around us: from the computers we use to the systems that produce the telephone bills to the embedded software in the TV that we watch. More than anything, it is the magic of software which has made the dramatic improvements in functionality in devices that we see around us. Software is also which is the key to India’s emergence as a key component in the transformation that information technology is bringing about world. And yet, the challenges ahead are vast.
Why is it that our computer crashes so often and we live with it? Why is it that it takes us a few minutes to start our computers while a car starts up immediately? Why is it that we still have so little intelligence in the messaging software that we use? Why is it that we still have to spend so much time searching for information? Why are there still so many forms we need to fill? Why can’t we still work effectively with people and share information easily? Why can’t systems learn what we are doing and help us do it better and faster? Why has technology still not made us many times more productive?
Software may be that magical quality is our lives, but there is still a long way to go. Yet, the biggest opportunities of tomorrow lie around software. The enterprise software industry is worth USD 80 billion, and will reach USD 200 billion by 2004, according to Merrill Lynch. Yes, as Steve Lohr writes in the New York Times, the challenges remain:
As Internet technology spreads across the economy, the pace may be uneven and the impact uncertain for companies large and small. Yet at least one thing is certain: there will be a huge demand for more software and more reliable software.
Given that writing software remains as much art as science – irritatingly immune to the automation that computing itself has brought to other endeavors – the looming software challenge is stirring concern.
In the next few columns, we will explore the world of software. We end today with some history.
It may be hard to believe, but the origins of the word “software” date back to only 43 years. Software was first mentioned in a January 1958 article by Princeton statistician John Tukey, co-inventor of the fast Fourier transform, a mathematical technique. In the American Mathematical Monthly, Tukey wrote: “Today the ‘software’ comprising the carefully planned interpretive routines, compilers, and other aspects of automative programming are at least as important to the modern electronic calculator as its ‘hardware’ of tubes, transistors, wires, tapes, and the like.” A detailed history of software is available at the Software History Center Home Page [http://www.softwarehistory.org].