10 pieces of software that changed the world

But just as important as the bells and whistles was the fact the developers provided support and rapidly fixed any reported bugs, making Mosaic the most reliable browser available. It was soon ported to the Mac, Amiga and then Windows, making it the first truly cross-platform web browser.

After Andreessen graduated he went on to found Netscape Communications, and created Netscape Navigator. Meanwhile, NCSA assigned its commercial rights in Mosaic to Spyglass Inc, which in turn licensed the code to Microsoft for use in early versions of Internet Explorer.

By late 1995 Mosaic’s market share was less than 10%, but its philosophy (and perhaps a fragment of its DNA) lives on in most of today’s browsers. It is truly software that changed the world.

4. Wolfram Mathematica

It takes a certain sort of genius to come up with something revolutionary. It’s a rarer sort of genius who then has the vision to work on this as a business, and to develop it for more than 20 years with a determination to ensure the product isn’t compromised. Stephen Wolfram is that genius, and Mathematica is his baby.

Mathematica

It’s a symbolic mathematical engine, cross platform and client-server too. It isn’t a maths program like Excel – there’s no rigid grid structure forced upon you. It’s a blank piece of paper on which you write equations. But the engine is mind-blowingly powerful, and you can apply almost any function to any object. Best of all, there are no hidden traps and nasties that you get with more mundane, mainstream products. You can trust the maths in Mathematica.

This has never been a product for someone who wants to do a shopping list, but Wolfram makes it possible to do pretty much anything in Mathematica. It also powers Wolfram Alpha – the brilliant “answers engine” unveiled after much hype and secrecy in 2009, which spits out beautifully presented results for factual queries, ranging from the population of Costa Rica, to the answer to life, the universe and everything. (42, of course.)

5. Lotus 1-2-3

Ask most people to email you a spreadsheet and chances are they’ll send you an .xls attachment. Microsoft’s Excel has become so dominant it’s in an almost monopolistic position. But it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time Lotus 1-2-3 reigned supreme, and those with long memories will remember installing it from huge piles of floppy disks, a process that could take several hours.

Lotus 1-2-3 wasn’t the world’s first spreadsheet software; that honour arguably goes to VisiCalc, which preceded 1-2-3 by around four years. But Lotus 1-2-3 rapidly outsold VisiCalc and introduced a whole generation of PC owners to the joys of self-updating column totals and automatic tax calculations. And where VisiCalc had concentrated on the maths, Lotus 1-2-3 added charts, realising that presentation is as important as accuracy. It also included rudimentary database capabilities, and later introduced macros and multiple worksheets. It was the PC’s first Killer Application.

Lotus spent much of the 1980s and 1990s involved in messy legal battles and takeovers, eventually becoming part of IBM. With its eye off the ball, Microsoft leapt into the lead and has remained there ever since. But without 1-2-3, Excel would probably never have existed. You can still buy Lotus 1-2-3 – it’s part of Lotus SmartSuite – but when was the last time someone emailed you a .wk4 file?

6. Visual Basic 3

If you wanted to program for Windows at the start of the 1990s, your options were limited. Buy a copy of Petzold’s legendary Programming Windows book, the super-expensive Windows SDK and the C compiler. Then invest a month or two reading the book. At this point you could get a Hello World program running, if you were lucky.

Then along came Visual Basic, a forms painter-based application. Draw what you wanted, hook up some simple code to the object models of the buttons and press Run. Within minutes, you’d step back in amazement. It just worked.

Visual Basic’s impact was staggering. Suddenly it was possible to write client-server line-of-business applications, and to do so in a rapid and affordable way. You didn’t need a team of experts, either – this was within the realms of your IT department. The impact and legacy of VB3 is still around today: Visual Basic for Applications, which underpins Office 2010, is a direct child of VB3.

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