InformationWeek highlights ‘The Greatest Software Ever Written’

“Most red-blooded technologists will offer a quick opinion on what’s the greatest software ever, but when you take the time to evaluate what makes software truly brilliant, the choices aren’t so obvious,” Charles Babcock writes for InformationWeek.

Babcock writes, “First, let’s set criteria for what makes software great. Superior programming can be judged only within its historical context. It must represent a breakthrough, technical brilliance, something difficult that hadn’t been done before. And it must be adopted in the real world.”

Babcock’s list:
12. The Morris worm
11. Google search rank
10. Apollo guidance system
9. Excel spreadsheet
8. Macintosh OS: “I can still remember the first time I sat down at a Macintosh at a hole-in-the-wall computer shop in Endicott, N.Y. I got that ‘rocket science’ feeling: I could see what it was doing, but I couldn’t believe it. The Mac incorporated the power of object-oriented computing into the user interface, and users have never looked back. The first Mac operating system was great software,” Babcock writes.
7. Sabre system
6. Mosaic browser
5. Java language
4. IBM System 360 OS
3. Institute for Genomic Research’s gene-sequencing software
2. IBM’s System R
1. BSD 4.3 (Note: Apple’s Mac OS X is based on the Mach kernel and the BSD implementation of Unix)

Full article, an excellent read, here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “TJS” for the heads up.]

A followup piece examines why Microsoft’s operating system didn’t make the cut in InformationWeek’s ranking of the greatest software ever written here.

MacDailyNews Note: In the full article, you’ll notice a bit about Xerox PARC and the Apple Mac that’s overly generalized. The definitive history on Xerox PARC and the Apple Mac can be found in various articles at For those interested, a good place to start would be Bruce Horn’s “On Xerox, Apple and Progress.”

[UPDATE: 11:22am EDT: Added link to followup article about Windows’ failure to crack the list.]


  1. read this a few days ago – i expected to see some mention of mac os – it wasn’t the first os of its kind but it was clearly innovative and powerful by 1984 standards. not just a “toy” like some IBM nitwits were saying back then.

    MW: volume. i wish my mac os would go to 11! ” width=”19″ height=”19″ alt=”wink” style=”border:0;” />

  2. Babcock’s criteria for what makes software great are: “It must represent a breakthrough, technical brilliance, something difficult that hadn’t been done before. And it must be adopted in the real world.”

    Berners-Lee’s WWW is eliminated because it “copied existing ideas” but as a stopper this also applies to the majority of the s/w on Babcock’s list. These other programs are included because they are “The great implementation of the …” ie speadsheet, browser, or whatever. These programs that are based on previous s/w include, by his own admission: Excel, Mosaic, Google, Mac OS, BSD 4.3, and there are others he doesn’t mention.

    The single Greatest Piece of Software Ever was BSD 4.3? I don’t think so. WWW is to my mind the program with the broadest impact on the world. Another test here is imagining what you would most miss from everything that Babcock mentions on his list. We could keep the whole list but where would we be without WWW?

  3. I disagree with a lot of the list. My choices would include the following, in no particular order :

    Emacs – ground-breaking editor
    Tops-20 – better than its successors
    Pioneer-10 guidance system – reprogrammable on the fly
    Turbo Pascal – editor and compiler in 64K
    MUMPS – data manipulation language (in which to write self-modifying programs is trivial)
    C – General purpose compiler
    GNU system – Free software
    NeXT Step – As a software development environment
    ADVENT – Colossal Cave, pre-cursor to role playing games
    The Human Mind – an honorable mention !

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