10 pieces of software that changed the world

And although Visual Basic has declined in popularity over the years – only 5% of programming vacancies require Visual Basic skills these days, compared to 20% in 2004, according to IT Jobs Watch – don’t be surprised if you still find 16-bit VB3 and 32-bit VB4 code running vitally important line-of-business processes in companies today. There’s still a hell of a lot of it out there.

7. WordStar

If video killed the radio star, then the IBM golf-ball typewriter was seen off by WordStar. The typewriter was the mainstay of the office. It was built like a tank, designed to bash out pages of text and last for years. WordStar brought real document editing to the emerging 8-bit CPM computer marketplace. It swept through businesses like a firestorm. Almost overnight, the golf-ball typewriter became an anachronism.

WordStar was the first computer product where proficiency was a business requirement for secretaries. You hired typists by the hour. They even had their own machines; we fondly remember the suitcase-sized Osborne transportable device with its tiny green screen and floppy disk drives.

Those bizarre Control-key keystrokes were essential to mastering the software. Moving the cursor around is something we do today with a mouse, a touchpad or even by voice control. Back then, that diamond-shaped array of control keys were the keys to the kingdom.

Word processor

Remember there were no onscreen fonts. Or proportional spacing. Or any of the advanced features we take for granted today, such as multiple columns and table painting. Graphics were created using carefully positioned ASCII characters.

Like most things in the history of software, the company was complacent. WordPerfect became the new standard. Then both WordStar and WordPerfect came out with truly hideous Windows products, and Word for Windows heralded the new world order.

But in its day, WordStar was a revolution. It moved computing into the business world, and changed everything. And those beautifully built mechanical typewriters were no more.

8. NetWare 2.x

Back in the late 1980s, networking your office was a problem that had only one answer: a box running NetWare. Sure, there were alternatives – Banyan tried to do global-spanning directories in an era when no-one cared. Microsoft and IBM were struggling with OS/2 LAN Manager (or “LAN Damager” as it was fondly named).

NetWare was a bitch to install and manage, but it was sold through NetWare-authorised resellers who knew what they were doing. It came with serious security, strong networking and good printer sharing. You could even run server-side applications if you were brave.

NetWare had a ferocious hardware requirement, and the calculations required to work out how much RAM you needed to support a given size of disk space induced migraines. However, once you had it installed and running, NetWare just worked for months at a time. It was serious, supported, solid and no-one went near the server console unless they really knew what they were doing.

This was before the arrival of the era of “it’s like your desktop Windows, how hard can it be?” Windows Server management. NetWare imploded with the late and buggy NetWare 4, and NT romped into the lead position.

But the lasting legacy of NetWare can’t be underestimated. It’s still mentioned in hushed, revered tones by those who were there (and if you didn’t know what the screensaver snake meant, you definitely weren’t there).

For many companies, it was their first taste of proper server-based networking with user authentication and real security. It has affected every aspect of business networking since.

9. Apple iTunes

iTunes is one of the iconic applications of the 21st century, not least because anyone with an iPod, iPhone or iPad is practically forced to use it. But its ubiquity isn’t the reason it’s forced its way into our top ten. Since its launch in 2001 it’s been hugely influential in shaping the personal entertainment market.

iTunes played a big part in the success of the iPod. Companies such as Creative and Diamond were already selling devices with clunky software, but iTunes’ slick simplicity turned the mass market onto Apple’s device, and to personal media players in general. If it wasn’t for iTunes, we might still be listening to MiniDiscs.

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