by Edited by Carol Zarrow

Book Review: A History of the Software Industry

Jun 15, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

Making History

From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry

By Martin Campbell-Kelly

MIT Press, 2003, $29.95

From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog is the first history of the software industry, at least according to the book jacket. That claim seems a bit surprising. Software is a high-profile sector, accounting for more than $250 billion internationally in annual revenue. And while the industry is new, it’s not that new. The clock started running in the late 1950s and early 1960s, writes Campbell-Kelly, when the U.S. government decided to fund several command and control systems for the military. One might reason that 40 years should have been plenty of time for someone to write a comprehensive history.

A cogent history needs a narrative core, however, and as the author points out, the software industry has never had a singular identity. Almost everything about the industry—applications, pricing, marketing—is determined by the machine and operating system on which the software runs. When hardware and operating systems change, the software changes as well.

So Campbell-Kelly’s book is not so much a history of a single industry but a collection of histories that chronicle the rise of several industries. Despite its lack of continuity, however, readers will see a progression of sorts, as software and services move from being capital goods (characterized by low sales, high prices and lots of after-sales support costs) to consumer goods (with high sales, low prices and fewer after-sales support costs). Throughout these histories, common themes emerge, such as the power of first-mover advantage and the doctrine of increasing returns (each copy of software sold makes it easier to sell the next).

A third theme emerges as well, and this is the reason why this book fails to produce a coherent narrative: Software development is a field that consumes its own history. Software succeeds when it’s a good fit for the current computing environment. When the environment changes, the software must change as well. Software is an industry that lives and dies by the promise of the new.

The newest promises in computing, the Internet and open source, are left uncovered. Campbell-Kelly ends his narrative in the mid-’90s, just as those twin forces are emerging. Ironically, it is possible that the historian has bowed out just as HTTP, XML and networking were about to give the industry the cohesiveness required for a true history. It is a great loss that the author didn’t take on this last, tumultuous decade.

For readers who do “remember when,” however, this book is a good read and a pleasant reminder. Here again, unearthed from years of magazine articles, are the stories of ADR, Cullinet, Computer Vision and dozens more companies that formed a generation of technology users, made them their friends and filled their lives. For its nostalgic value alone, this one’s a keeper.

-Fred Hapgood


“What I’ve seen happening over time is that project management tools do a lovely job of mapping the known part of a project’s future and say darn little about all the things that might happen. The idea that we can graph our way to success is an illusion and a dangerous one.”

-From a CIO Radio ( interview with Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, authors of Waltzing with Bears: Managing Risk on Software Projects (Dorset House, 2003)

CIO Best-Seller List

The Iron Triangle: Inside the Secret World of the Carlyle Group

By Dan Briody

John Wiley & Sons, 2003


By Rudolph W. Giuliani

Miramax Books, 2002

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

By Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Crown Publishing Group, 2002

Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

By Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis

and Annie McKee

Harvard Business School Press, 2002

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t

By Jim Collins

HarperCollins Publishers, 2001

Source: Data from Feb. 12, 2003, to May 13, 2003, compiled by Powell’s Books, Portland, Ore.

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