Paul D. Miller on Wed, 12 Mar 2003 04:22:35 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> resending - The Ascent of the Software Civilization

well... all I can say is, A for effort, but the book definitely
leaves room for an analysis of how the open source movement and youth
culture intersect, but hey... that's another scenario. It's 
intriguing to see how the modes of production he describes parallel 
writing of software in large corporate contexts - it's all shopped 
out, parcel of code by parcel of code... again - an echo of Manuel 
Delanda's "War in the Age of Intelligent Machines" - the paradigmatic 
cultural shift of a culture conditioned by dematerialization of most 
physical references... that old Marx phrase "all that is solid melts 
into air" echoing in the here and now of a culture in constant 
update. The information flows in the same turbulent world that we 
call home, it's just that the conduits keep changing. Decent review 


The Ascent of the Software Civilization

March 9, 2003

TECHNOLOGY euphoria was in the air and stock prices were
stratospheric. The shares of some software and computer
services companies jumped a hundredfold in a few years.
"Never before has the stock market shown quite so much
enthusiasm about an industry," a writer for Fortune
magazine observed.

The year was 1968.

History may provide no sure guide to the future, but it
does offer context and insight for the present. And, given
the proper twist, history glimmers with a certain knowing
humor. In his incisive, panoramic book, "From Airline
Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the
Software Industry" (MIT Press, $29.95), Martin
Campbell-Kelly delivers all three - context, insight, even
occasional humor. His treatment of the similarity in the
computer mania of the late 1960's and the Internet bubble
of the late 1990's is one many telling observations.

Mr. Campbell-Kelly's book is not for everyone. He is an
instructor in computer science at the University of Warwick
in England and is a professional historian. His is not a
book of insider gossip or of recreated scenes of clashing
egos and executive tirades - the stuff of so many business
books. Instead, it is the product of his reading and
distilling of books, professional journals, magazine and
newspaper articles and historical archives over the last
four decades.

The result is a sweeping survey of the software business
since the early 1950's, its evolving structure, economics
and marketing. The product and company names are so
numerous that, at times, they seem to race by in a blur -
Cincom, Cullinane, Panosophic, Cytation, Famicom, Xenix,
Comshare, Syncsort, Super- Writer, MacNeal-Schwendler and
hundreds more. The book is a ready reference for any
misguided soul who wants to create a computer trivia game.

Yet, along the way, Mr. Campbell-Kelly pauses for longer
passages on subjects ranging from the role of the
government's SAGE air defense-and-surveillance system to
the decision by I.B.M. in 1969 to "unbundle" hardware and
software sales. The unbundling was "a turning point," the
author says, because it ensured a sizable software industry
separate from hardware.

Mr. Campbell-Kelly gives the United States government
credit for creating a market for programmers in the 1950's
and early 1960's with SAGE, a name derived from
"semiautomatic ground environment." About $150 million was
spent on its software, and thousands of programmers were
trained to work on the project - a veritable "university
for programmers." Its alumni went off to populate corporate
data centers and to start companies elsewhere. SAGE also
tackled a host of technical problems in real-time
transaction processing that eased the way for I.B.M.'s
development of the Sabre online reservations system, called
"the Kid's SAGE," for American Airlines.

Time and again, the book shows that what seems new in the
software industry in fact echoes the past. The engineers
who used software formed user groups starting in the 1950's
with SHARE, whose members came from companies that used
I.B.M. 704 computers. The group's name, though capitalized,
was not an acronym. It was what the group did; it shared
programs and expertise to help drive down programming

This was when software was treated as a marketing cost of
hardware instead of as a stand-alone product. But, as the
author writes, "one of the abiding legacies of the user
groups was the perception of software as a free good." In
their attitude and behavior, the user groups were very
similar to those engaged in today's open-source software
projects like GNU Linux, an operating system that is
distributed free and is steadily improved and debugged by a
network of programmers.

IN the late 1960's and early 70's, there was great
excitement about - and investment in - the notion of
computing as a utility-like service that could be delivered
to offices and homes to solve all manner of problems. The
idea flopped because it proved to be too complex a
challenge to write the software needed to distribute
computing as a service from a central time-shared machine
to many users. Besides, microcomputers, later called
personal computers, were about to arrive, putting
affordable computing on desktops thanks to the miracle of
the microprocessor.

Today, the utility concept is making a comeback. This time,
the industry is betting that 30 years of advances in
software, hardware and networking can deliver utility
computing. I.B.M. is promoting "on demand" computing, and
Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and others have similar
offerings. Companies like are offering
software as a service in an emerging market for so-called
application service providers, or A.S.P.'s. "Because the
concept was never fully tested in the 1970's," Mr.
Campbell-Kelly writes, "history has few lessons to offer
the A.S.P. industry." Well, the A.S.P. start-ups certainly
hope so.

As software became a product in its own right, marketing
became more important. In the fledgling personal computer
industry, some of the tactics were particularly inventive.
In 1980, George Tate, a former electronics industry
salesman, began marketing a database program he named dBase
II. There was no "I," but "II" suggested a second, improved
product. This ploy was not uncommon. But in 1983, Mr. Tate
took the more imaginative leap, renaming his company

"There was no Ashton," the author writes, "but it was
considered a euphonious and high-sounding name."

Mr. Campbell-Kelly argues convincingly that Microsoft's
stature in the software industry as a whole tends to be
overstated. After all, he notes, Microsoft dominates only
about 10 percent of the industry, while it has no such sway
over large portions of the software business like corporate
software, software contractors and consultants.

"If this book serves no other purpose," he writes, "I hope
it will serve as a corrective to the common misconception
that Microsoft is the center of the software universe
around which all else revolves."

Mr. Campbell-Kelly is dismissive of the federal antitrust
suit filed in 1998. "Exactly why the action was brought
remains a mystery," he writes. He is fastidious with
footnotes, but there are none near that sentence. It's his
opinion, period.

He may not understand the Microsoft antitrust suit, but he
lucidly analyzes Microsoft's mastery of using software and
business acumen to build a lucrative technology platform.
In Microsoft's case, of course, the technology platform is
the Windows operating system. The company encouraged and
helped software developers write programs that run on the
Microsoft platform, increasing the value of Windows and
prompting even more applications to be written on top of
Windows. Economists call this commercial snowball "network

It is nothing new, really. I.B.M., as Mr. Campbell-Kelly
explains, did the same thing with its operating system for
the I.B.M. 360 mainframe and follow-on products.

And Sony, in video game consoles, deftly used software to
build its technology platform and a thriving ecosystem of
game developers supporting its PlayStation platform. Once
Sony mastered the economics of software, Sega's Sonic the
Hedgehog never had a chance.

"None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe 
they are free...."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

wildstyle access:

Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid

Office Mailing Address:

Subliminal Kid Inc.
101 W. 23rd St. #2463
New York, NY 10011

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