IT greats: The soft machine at the heart of IT

Productivity and communication are the functions that mark the software technologies voted the greatest in the past 40 years by Computer Weekly readers.

Productivity and communication are the functions that mark the software technologies voted the greatest in the past 40 years by Computer Weekly readers.

At number one in the poll, the graphical user interface is taken for granted by most application users, but imagine for a moment what life would be like without point and click functionality. A command line nightmare would bring many businesses grinding to a halt.

And what if there was no TCP/IP? This protocol works in the background of all the main internet-based data transfer applications. Without it, business would be a lot slower.

One of the main TCP/IP-based applications, e-mail, comes in at number three in our poll. Despite the headaches of security and spam, it appears few of you would want to live without it.

Software top 10

1. Graphical user interface
3. E-mail
5. Relational database
6. Spreadsheet
7. XML
8. Virtualisation
10. Customer relationship management

1. Graphical User Interface: Opening up the computer to everyone
The graphical user interface (GUI) uses graphical images, text and toolbars to represent information and activities on a computer. The technology has become so successful that most business users take it for granted as a way of accessing and viewing their files and data.

GUIs can be found on desktop PCs, workstations and servers, personal digital assistants, mobile phones, car navigation systems and other consumer electronics equipment.

The first GUI was invented by researchers at the Stanford Research Institute who developed text-based hyperlinks that could be manipulated with a mouse.

But most modern GUIs from the likes of Apple and Microsoft owe a debt to the researchers at Xerox Parc, who went beyond text-based hyperlinks and used GUIs as the primary interface for the Xerox Alto computer.

GUIs were introduced as a user-friendly alternative to the command line interface (CLI), a text-based user interface that uses typed commands to carry out activities.

If business users were forced to use CLIs rather than GUIs, most staff would require intensive training and applications would be a lot more cumbersome and time--consuming to use.

GUIs have therefore done much to improve staff productivity, and they have opened the benefits of computing to even the least tech-literate users.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system is the most well known example of a GUI, with its various flavours of interface, from the Windows Classic to the forthcoming Aero, which introduces “glass” window effects.

Other leading GUIs that feature advanced graphics and usability include Apple’s Mac OS X and Ubuntu Linux3D.

Three-dimensional interfaces continue to appeal to users, with the likes of Sphere’s SphereXP and Sun’s Java-based Project Looking Glass raising the bar in this area. A three-dimensional computing environment is particularly useful for collaborative work that involves managing multiple streams of data  and computer-aided design/manufacturing applications.

2. TCP/IP: Powering E-business
That the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) networking standard was voted the second most significant software technology of the past 40 years is a testament to the widespread acceptance and adoption of the internet by businesses.

Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf developed TCP in 1973 for the US military. The idea was to enclose packets of data in “datagrams”, which would act like envelopes containing letters. Gateway computers would then read the delivery information contained in the datagrams, before delivering the contents to host computers to read the packet contents.

TCP made it easier for different networks to be joined together for communications purposes, and was eventually used to make the internet, a network of networks, a reality.

TCP was later refined and split into two parts to become TCP/IP, which is now the standard for all internet communications.

TCP/IP allows applications to create connections to each other over the internet and send and receive packets of data. The most common applications that use TCP/IP are HTTP/HTTPS (for web traffic), SMTP/POP3/Imap (for transmitting e-mail) and FTP (for file transfer). Research has found that TCP/IP is used in approximately 95% of all internet data packets.

TCP/IP has grown more complex over time, while still providing the same basic operation – to exchange data over a network. However, enhancements to TCP/IP have made it more reliable and have helped it to handle network congestion better.

Functions carried out by the networking protocol include error-free data transfer, ordered-data transfer, retransmission of lost packets, discarding of duplicate packets and congestion throttling.

Companies therefore have a lot to thank TCP/IP for. Whether sending business-critical e-mails, accessing applications remotely, selling products via the web, or offering online customer support, the trusty TCP/IP is working in the background to ensure that things go smoothly.

3. E-Mail: A comms revolution
E-mail has become both a boon and a bane for businesses, as an increasing amount of communication travels in the form of an electronic message.

The medium has been around since the 1960s, predating the internet. The first e-mail project, the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS), was begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961.

This system allowed multiple users to log in to an IBM 7094 from remote dial-up terminals and store files on the computer’s hard disc. The project gave rise to e-mail in 1965, which offered a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate.

By 1966, users on different computers could transfer e-mails. But it took a long time for e-mail to become the phenomenon it is today, mainly because neither the network nor the computers were in place.

It wasn’t until 1988 that e-mail really took off, with the internet finally finding its feet. CIX (Compulink Information Exchange) was one of the earliest service providers, providing the UK’s first commercial internet e-mail services.

CIX grew rapidly, peaking at more than 16,000 users in 1994. At that point, a host of internet service providers stepped in, attracting users away from CIX, and the free for all that we know today emerged.

Nowadays, businesses are familiar with e-mail’s benefits and issues. On the negative side, e-mail-borne viruses have meant that organisations have had to invest in more security technologies and train users about safe e-mail usage. E-mails have given many of us a headache because of the sheer volume of them that we receive. And then there’s spam.

On the plus side, e-mail helps firms conduct business quickly and globally, and communicate with thousands of individuals instantaneously. Perhaps the ultimate measure of the importance of e-mail in business is to try taking e-mail facilities away from your end-users – the screams will be heard for miles.

4. html
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), created by inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee, is a key technology for building websites.

In the beginning, HTML was not a specification, but rather a collection of tools used to communicate research among Berners-Lee and his colleagues. Since HTML version 1.0, the language has undergone many revisions and enhancements to help users tag page elements in increasingly innovative ways.

For businesses, the emergence of HTML has meant that their websites and e-mails have become richer in terms of content and interaction. The language has helped organisations to attract and retain customers and interact with business partners more efficiently.

For many smaller firms, HTML-based websites have given them a reach and presence beyond their geographical area. 

HTML is also the technology that enables bloggers to communicate with their global audience.

5. Relational database
Developed in 1970 by Ted Codd, the idea of a database that combines data elements from its files for queries and reports has been a boon to business. Today, almost every corporate database management system is relational – if you use Oracle, DB2, SQL Server or MySQL, you are in the relational club.

6. Spreadsheet
Converting paper-based workflow sheets into an electronic format is a simple idea that has taken on a life of its own. From accountancy to project management, the ability to run formulae and segment business data has been invaluable.

7. XML
By providing a common method for identifying data, Extensible Markup Language has become the cornerstone of electronic  business-to-business transactions. The ­human-readable XML data tags ­enable web pages to function like database records, both containing and describing data.
8. Virtualisation
Virtualisation removes some of the constraints that hardware has traditionally placed on software. By enabling multiple operating systems to run on a single server, for example, the approach allows IT managers to squeeze more from their IT assets. As data volumes expand, so will virtualisation technologies.
Simple Network Management Protocol has become increasingly important as corporate networks expand. Part of the IP suite, it is used to monitor devices and software on a network and alert managers to potential problems.
10. CRM
Customer relationship management software has enabled businesses to draw together all the records they hold on an individual or company. As well as reducing duplication, this has enabled firms to  identify opportunities for targeted marketing and cross-selling of products.

Your big names

Outside the main choices for greatest software, the most popular readers’ suggestions were:

1. Java
2. Unix
3. Word processor
4. Object orientation
5. Linux/open source
6. C languages
7. Postscript

Readers show their roots with Space Invaders vote
A 1970s arcade game may seem a strange choice as one of the software greats, but Space Invaders introduced many Computer Weekly readers to the wonderful world of IT.

Designed by Toshihiro Nishikado in 1978, the arcade game was originally manufactured by Taito. Variations on the game then spread across the world on Ataris, Commodores and other early home PCs.

Although simplistic by today’s standards, Space Invaders – along with contemporaries such as Pac-Man and Breakout – was the forerunner of today’s multibillion-pound global video gaming industry.

Perhaps more importantly for the IT industry, the game led thousands of households, under pressure from their children, to get a home PC. By the end of the 1980s, computers were second nature to an entire generation, priming them for the internet revolution and the rise of IT-enabled business.

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