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Copyright

Title: From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog - A History of the Software Industry
Author: Martin Campbell-Kelly
Publisher: MIT Press
Copyright: 2003
ISBN: 0-262-03303-8
Pages: 372
Price: $19.99
Rating: 70%

Imagine if you bought a computer today and received nothing but a cold electronic machine. And to get it to do anything you had to program it yourself. Fortunately, that's not what happens, but that's how it was with the first commercial computers. "IBM's first production computer, the 701, came with little more than a user's manual." IBM provided a 103-page manual, a primitive assembler, and a couple of utilities on punch cards. In those days, the 1950s, programmers were not only essential but crucial to running a computer. 

Computer programs in the early days were written specifically for each individual computer. It was not until many years later that the idea of sharing, then later marketing software was developed. The software industry was born once people realized that they could use the same program on several computers, though sometimes after adapting it for a specific customer's needs. 

The software industry, today one of the leading engines of economic growth, grew slowly in the second half of the 20th century. It is only natural that this growth accompanied the rise in importance of the computer itself. When only expensive mainframe computers were sold, the nascent industry took its first steps, and as computers shrank in size and cost, the sales of software increased in line with the ubiquity of computers. 

But one cannot really talk of a software "industry" as such until the birth of the personal computer in the 1980s. Software companies grew like mushrooms in the forest as users bought computers for home and business use, and needed something to do with them. First balancing their checkbooks, then writing letters and playing games, the home computer user drove the growth and innovation of this market, while the business user clamored for better and faster tools to help manage their business. 

Martin Campbell-Kelly tells this story in From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog, an overview of the software industry from its inception to 1995. From the SABRE airline reservation system, the first major civilian software project (one that is still running, albeit in a different form), to the present, this industry has gone through stages of growth, speculation and decline several times to become an immutable part of the computer industry. 

This is a history book, and reads like one. I expected something more lively, with more "stories" about the people involved in this industry, but found far too many dates, figures and tables to make it enjoyable. At times, Campbell-Kelly writes paragraphs that seem like wrapping for lists of the number of lines of code in a program, the number of units sold, how much it made, how much it cost and so on, leaving me bleary-eyed and begging for some nuggets of interest. He brushes off the entire computer game industry in less than 20 pages (two of which contain a large table), ignoring the tremendous impact games have had not only in sales but also in spurring the growth of the computer industry through their increasing demands for processor power and video displays. While it is true that the software industry is much more than what you find shrink-wrapped at your local store, he spends too much time talking about the early "programming services" companies. Again, if he had added some human elements to his narrative it might have been more captivating. 

Another problem with the book is the arbitrary cut-off date of 1995. Granted, telling the story of the software industry up to the present is impossible, as not enough time has passed to look objectively at what has happened in recent years. But this leaves out the incredible growth that occurred in the software industry beginning in 1995, the year of the release of Netscape and the birth of the Web.  

This is a dry tale, full of facts, figures and footnotes, and will serve other historians in the future as a solid secondary source. But for casual reading it doesn't catch your interest. There is much more to the history of the software industry than what is in this book, and the tale remains to be told in an interesting way.

Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.