Top 10 industry-changing applications

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Top 10 industry-changing applications

At the end of the day a computer is a very sophisticated bit of kit, but without applications it is nothing more than a fancy toy.

We wouldn't have so many computers in the workplace or home if it weren't for the applications that drive adoption. In a very real sense applications were the lifeblood of the computer industry.

The term 'killer app' gets tossed around quite liberally these days. Nearly every piece of software released seems to be pitched as having the potential to send shockwaves throughout the IT world.

In reality, there have been precious few applications which have truly changed the computing industry over the years. This week we examine a few of those true 'killer apps,' and what they have meant to computing.

Honourable mention- Minesweeper

Shaun Nichols: Iain and I had to fight this one out a bit, but in the end Minesweeper stayed on the list, if just barely.

I do think that it was an industry-changing app, if not always for the better. Before the days of LOLcats and gossip blogs brought by the web there wasn't much of a leisure experience connected with office computing.

When the hours started running long and attention spans started running short however, office workers began to turn to games such as Minesweeper, Tetris and Solitaire that came pre-installed on most workstations.

For most, these games were a nice release and only a minor hindrance to actual productivity. However, as with all good things, casual gaming could get out of hand. Nearly every office has the story about the one worker who seemed to spend six hours of every workday playing Minesweeper.

Iain Thomson: I meant what I said Shaun; it's a game, not an application.

Nevertheless it's difficult to deny the impact of Minesweeper. One analyst firm estimated it had done more to damage office productivity than anything else in the computing world.

Like many successful games Minesweeper is deceptively simple, but can be fiendishly difficult in practice. Since my boss reads this I would like to say that I never play the thing at all, oh no. Actualy I rarely play it at all, but that's not the point.

Minesweeper introduced a lot of office workers to computer games, and I'd argue that it didn't harm productivity that much. Everyone needs a break now and again after all.

Honourable mention: SMS

Iain Thomson: SMS was an accident, but one that has bought in billions of dollars of revenues and spawned a whole subculture.

Originally an engineering check function used in the early days of mobile phone development, SMS was left on the handsets and initially wasn't even charged for. Younger phone users discovered it and saw an immediate use. At one point the majority of texts sent were sent on Friday and Saturday nights, as people tried to find each other in nightclubs where conversation was impossible.

SMS is a special application because it has some key advantages. Providing the number is right the recipient will be unable to ignore the message because it appears automatically on their phone. It has also made reassuring relatives from abroad much cheaper than a phone call. If there's one downside then it's in occasionally receiving a message like “We need to talk.”

Shaun Nichols: As someone who has been unceremoniously dumped via SMS, I definitely agree that is has major drawbacks.

The advantages, however, are far greater. When one is at a crowded event such as a club or a parade, SMS is just about the only way to communicate. I can't count how many hours of searching for friends at clubs and concerts I have saved through text messaging.

It also has the advantage of allowing for a private conversation with a person when you don't want to tip off a third party. Scoff all you want, but we've all sent an SOS to have a friend come bail you out of a boring conversation or an unwanted advance while out on the town.

Considering how few people were familiar with the concept of SMS messaging 15 or even 10 years ago, the system has quickly become a vital method of communication for a very large portion of the general population.

10. Oracle database

Shaun Nichols: As computing history will show time and time again, it's usually not the company that does something first that succeeds, but the company that does the right product at the right time.

IBM had been putting servers in office buildings since the 1950s, but Oracle, founded in 1977, was able to come of age right around the time database systems became both affordable and necessary for enterprises.

While the database product has always had the Oracle name, the company has not. Originally founded as Software Development Laboratories, it was not until 1983 that the database product's success led the company to change its corporate name to Oracle.

Iain Thomson: Larry Ellison may not be my favourite person in IT but I'll say this for him, he knows his onions when it comes to business.

The Oracle business has proved useful for people who have made a career out of database management. It's a rock solid application that businesses love, even if they don't like paying the fees for the code.

By hook, and occasionally crook, Oracle has come to achieve dominance in the database world. This has only increased with the purchase of Sun Microsystems, giving it control of MySQL. If the past is anything to go by I fear for its future.

9. PGP

Iain Thomson: I would have liked to see Phil Zimmermann's little baby higher on the list but there was some tough competition.

Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) brought encryption to the masses. It enabled people to ensure their privacy quickly and simply. The world's repressive regimes and intelligence agencies hated Zimmermann's guts I'm sure.

The US government spent three years investigating if PGP should be classed as a munition and banned from export. Zimmermann's defence was masterly. He decided to publish the PGP source code in a book, allowing anyone access to it. The program was also freely available on the internet. In the end the government threw up its hands, realising the horse had well and truly bolted.

PGP is still the gold standard of encryption packages and no-one it seems can break it successfully. It has given privacy to us all, privacy that would otherwise have gone long ago.

Shaun Nichols: I think part of the reason PGP didn't land higher on the list is that so few people understand what the software does and just how important encryption is in our day-to-day surfing activities.

As Iain pointed out, PGP was a remarkable bit of code. The program allowed average users to encrypt data on a level that even government security systems were hard pressed to match. This was not welcome news to officials, who worried that PGP could be used by paedophiles or terrorists to encrypt data and hide evidence from authorities.

In the end, however, PGP really is a great tool. One has to wonder just how many billions of dollars could have been saved in recent years had certain individuals and organisations opted to use PGP to lock down employee and customer data.

8. Apache

Shaun Nichols: When Iain and I sat down to build this list, we knew that we wanted to put Linux on the list in some form. But because we are only counting down apps, we couldn't rightfully list an entire OS.

After much thought and some debate, we settled on Apache. The open-source HTTP server program is responsible for managing more of the internet than most people will ever imagine.

Today, it is estimated that nearly half of all web pages are served through Apache software, making it by far the most popular tool for HTTP servers. The huge reach of Apache has also helped to drive Linux adoption on many of those servers.

It is often said that Linux is lacking a 'killer app' to really spike its adoption in most sectors. In at least one very important and ever-growing market, however, this is definitely not the case.

Iain Thomson: Any time a commercial software company tries to tell you that you can't trust open source code then throw Apache back.

The Apache HTTP Server dominates web traffic and has led the market for over a decade. And it's free. It's a compelling argument for businesses, and one that drives Microsoft nuts. Its IIS product is number two and Redmond hate that.

As a consequence we journalists get oodles of correspondence from Microsoft about how much better IIS is than Apache. Personally I've got my doubts; they both seem much of a muchness in terms of functionality and Microsoft seems to suffer more security problems.

But these are quibbling points. Apache has proven the open source model works. It is possible to use stable, free software supported by volunteers. For that reason alone it makes the list.

7. Microsoft Office

Iain Thomson: Microsoft Office made thousands of secretaries redundant but opened business up to the computing world.

Initially developed for the Apple, Office hit the PC world and began absorbing the competition. Individual applications vendors had a problem in that businesses could pay a little bit extra and get an application nearly as good as theirs, but with a bunch of others thrown in too. Wordperfect, Lotus and a host of others faded away as Microsoft cornered the market.

Microsoft might get a lot of its power from its operating system domination but it gets a sizeable chunk of its cash from the Office cash cow. What staggers me is that people keep on upgrading. I've a copy of Office 2000 that still does everything I want and more.

But it looks that those days are drawing to a close. With Google giving away similar applications for free online the end of Office's domination is drawing near.

Shaun Nichols: Microsoft doesn't often get much credit for its innovation, but Office is a product that the company has always done well. No, they didn't invent the word processing application or spreadsheet tools, but Microsoft was the first company to see how all of those tools could be packaged together in a suite.

Before Office, business software was a collection of different applications from seperate vendors, and with all of the compatibility and interoperability issues that came with that. By tying everything into a bundle, the company was able to offer a simple collection that could be uniformly installed on every workstation, giving users a complete kit no matter what the specifics of their job required.

Sure, Office did eventually become a ridiculously bloated package of little-used programs and features that did nothing but eat up tons of hard drive space, but by then it had become an essential tool for users, both home and enterprise.

These days, there are a host of other suites to choose from. One can opt for a software platform such as iWork or Open Office, or you can use a web-based service such as Zoho or Google Apps. But Microsoft Office still remains the dominant productivty suite, and even those who use an alternative product have to grudgingly tip their cap to the folks in Redmond.

6. Dr. Solomon's Antivirus Toolkit

Shaun Nichols: The first release of the Dr. Solomon AV software kit is widely credited as the kickstart to the modern anti-malware software system.

The viruses of the late 1980s were few and their impact was usually far less serious than today's identity-stealing worms and botnet controllers. But Dr. Solomon's was a lifesaver for users and administrators unlucky enough to get infected.

It also came along just in time. In the 1990s, virus activity began to pick up, and when the internet developed at the end of the decade, malware became a major threat to just about every computer on the planet.

While Dr. Solomon's company has since been bought out by McAfee and retired into the annals of history, the impact of the first AV suite and the concepts it ushered in continue to be felt more than two decades later.

Iain Thomson: For many of us old timers the answer to any virus infection was to reach for Dr Solly's little bag of tricks. It was often a blessed relief to have.

While Solly's competitors have gone on to greater things they all benefited from the success of this package. It was also important in introducing the general public to the idea of computer viruses and how they could be taken care of. For a generation raised by Hollywood to have erroneous fears about such things the toolkit was also highly useful.

But there's one other reason why the application makes it on the list. Dr Solomon's encouraged the free flow of information about viruses between its labs and the competition, and was key to making it stick. This was vital to all our security today, otherwise we'd all be hit by a lot more viruses.

Read on to page two for the top five!

5. Adobe Photoshop

Iain Thomson: Photoshop was, is and will probably always be the graphics industry standard. Try getting a job in production without proficiency if you don't believe me.

It totally changed the way images could be enhanced and manipulated. Pretty much every magazine cover has been developed using it, and a lot of models can thank their long careers on its ability to seamlessly get rid of wrinkles and zits.

Giving the ability to do simple image processing continues to have an effect today. Artists use it to create bold new designs, individuals create stunning web pages and the ability to manipulate images is now commonplace, based on the fact that my mum does it to her own photos.

Photoshop also served a secondary purpose; it kept Apple alive during the dark days. Photoshop and Apple were tied together at birth and graphics designer's insistence on using Apple for work left the company an important business niche when sales were limited to hobbyists and fan boys.

Shaun Nichols: It is definitely not outside the realm of possibility to suggest that had Adobe not developed Photoshop, Apple would never have survived long enough to bring back Steve Jobs in the 90s.

For most of the professional photographers I know, getting rid of Photoshop would be about as difficult as kicking heroin. The ability to immediately develop and fine-tune images has literally cut hours, and in some cases days, off of the photography process. Web coverage of breaking news and sporting events would be next to impossible without Photoshop.

As with everything else, however, Photoshop has brought along some rather unpleasant innovations as well. Due to the sophistication with which images can be doctored, or even outright forged, we are now in a state of mind where something as seemingly concrete as photographic evidence can be called into question.

In creating a new market for digital imaging Adobe also managed to kill off another market; photo printing and film developing. I'm sure in the corporate halls of companies like Fuji and Kodak, Photoshop is about as popular as a Christmas-time shaved ice vendor in Moscow.


Shaun Nichols: In 1971, software engineer Ray Tomlinson constructed a nifty little program called SNDMSG. The program allowed users to send messages through ARPAnet to users on computers connected to other networks.

In other words, Ray Tomlinson invented email. While it would take another 25 years to hit, the system eventually became a rather popular way for anyone who owned a computer to communicate with others.

Aside from being the first program to allow users to send and receive messages with those on other networks, SNDMSG was also iconic in that Tomlinson decide to define individual systems by denoting the workstation name followed by an @ symbol and the network name. To this day, we use that format to designate an individual email address.

Iain Thomson: Where would we be without email? Well, there'd be more postmen at work but other than that the effects have been almost totally positive.

It's hard to imagine a world without email. It sped up business transactions immensely, made almost instantaneous communication a reality for many and is by far the most commonly used computer application in the world. Sadly it has cost us some things, notably penmanship and the irritation of the emoticon, but other than that email is a must have application.

There was some debate as to how to put email on the list. Personally I thought Hotmail, or even Gmail, could have been a contender but in the end we went for the font of email systems. Web mail is important, but it wasn't what changed computing.

3. Lotus 1-2-3

Iain Thomson: As far as businesses were concerned early computers were good really for only a few applications, chiefly fast mathematical calculations. So it was logical spreadsheets would be an early usage model.

The first major spreadsheet application was VisiCalc for the Apple. But when IBM got into the PC market Mitch Kapor, who knew the VisiCalc developers, took the idea and built Lotus 1-2-3 for DOS. Today that would have landed him a shedload of legal fees but instead he built Lotus into a US$3.5bn company.

The spreadsheet was the first killer app for the computer. It changed the way many businesses operated, by allowing analysis of corporate data to be completed in seconds, not weeks. Businesses could game out the effects of a price rise in a key commodity or the cost of a rise in interest payments or taxes.

This ability gave businesses a huge competitive advantage, and guaranteed the future of the computer as we know it today. Word processing, email and the web all followed on but it was something as dull as spreadsheets that moved computing into the mainstream business world.

Shaun Nichols: Along with the word processor, spreadsheet software was really responsible for the proliferation of the PC in the business space. Without it, IT would likely have been limited to servers and control terminals for decades.

Companies like Dell and IBM have Kapor to thank for trillions of dollars in sales. By giving companies a reason to put a workstation on every desk, Lotus helped fuel the growth of the business PC industry. Suddenly, a computer became something that everyone from the CEO to the secretary required to do their job. And the task of maintaining and servicing these systems became the profession of of... you guessed it... enterprise IT.

As Iain points out, it also helped to transform the concept of business intelligence. Instead of having to rely on specialised hardware and consultants, suddenly executives could all see and analyse collections of data that would have otherwise been nearly impossible to correlate and examine.

2. Quark Xpress

Shaun Nichols: Though it is one of many page layout and desktop publishing platforms, Quark Xpress has long been considered to be the most successful tool for designing a printed publication.

Quark Xpress and its peers have become so ubiquitous that those of us who grew up with personal computers sometimes have a hard time imagining that these sort of tasks were once done by hand.

As a result, Quark allowed many smaller companies to enter the publishing business, and made print publications as a whole much more aesthetically appealing.

I was first introduced to Quark in grade school when my stepmother, a graphic designer, showed me how to piece together a template for writing school reports. I still say with a fair amount of confidence that my science paper that year is perhaps the best-looking report on baboons written by an 11 year-old ever to earn a C.

Iain Thomson: Way to make me feel old Shaun. I first used Quark in my first journalism job a couple of years after graduation. A quick mental calculation shows you weren't even in double figures back then.

Quark basically drove the entire desktop publishing industry and we were tremendously excited when it came out. It may seem hard to believe but back in the day we had to physically bike pages to the repro shop before sending them to the printers. Quark made magazine publishing quick, easy and cheap.

There have been some disadvantages to be sure. Quark eliminated whole industries like typesetting and put a sizable dent in the courier business. But that's the thing with new technology, sometimes older professions have to go to the wall. At the same time the rise in the number of publications was dramatic and it's fair to say that without it neither Shaun or myself might have had a career.

1. Mosaic

Iain Thomson: Usually with a top 10 list the number one is the easiest to work out. This week's was tough, not so much for the application - a web browser was the obvious choice - but the people behind it.

I argued hard for Firefox and Mozilla, Shaun disagreed and things got so acrimonious I nearly didn't get the second round of beers in. In the end he won down to the force of logic. If we're talking change then the Mosaic team were the ones who did it.

There were other browsers to be sure. Berners-Lee may have kicked things off but he had no idea about the future potential of the internet.

But other programmers did. Four Finnish students built Erwise in 1992 and a Berkeley student invented ViolaWWW, the most popular browser before Mosaic.

Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina simply built the best product out there. Not the best technically, but one with features that made sense to the majority of computer users, such as adding the ability to have pictures and text in the same window - something Berners-Lee vehemently objected too at the time. Mosaic proved that the web was more than just text.

The other reason I agreed with Shaun is that in the end we're both right. Mosaic gets the prize rightly, but the team behind it went on to form Netscape, which begot Mozilla and thus Firefox. Just goes to show, you can seldom kill a good idea.

Shaun Nichols: This one was tough. We knew that number one would have to be something to do with browsers, but which one? Netscape Navigator was the first huge commercial success, but with walled garden ISPs such as AOL and Prodigy in the early days of the internet it wasn't a necessity for users.

Firefox was important, but the browser market had been long developed and established by the time it arrived. And Internet Explorer... well... it was Internet Explorer.

In the end, we decided to go with Mosaic for the simple reason that it established the format and basic design concepts for what would become the web. Mosaic introduced the concept that a web page could be ordered and viewed visually in the same way a regular sheet of paper could, with images and text laid out together.

Everyone loves to talk about how the GUI in MacOS and Windows changed the computing world by insulating users from a complicated command line, In a way, Mosaic did the same thing for internet. It marked a transition from the text-only bulletin board system of ARPAnet and made the internet something which could be both accessible and appealing to average users.

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