When you clicked an icon to launch your web browser to read this article, you can thank Charles Thacker (among others).
In 1973, Thacker and a group of scientists at the famed Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) built the Alto, the world’s first desktop computer. The Alto featured many innovations that we take for granted today in our personal computers: a television-like screen, graphical user interface, windows, icons, and a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) text editor.
The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) has awarded Charles Thacker with the Turing Award, which is considered to be the “Nobel Prize in Computing.” The award includes a $250,000 check, with financial support by Intel and Google. Since 1966 the Turing Award has honored computer scientists and engineers who “created the systems and underlying theoretical foundations that have propelled the information technology industry.”
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Computer programmers love whiteboards. We can sketch out our ideas, plans and designs. We can draw use cases, flowcharts and class diagrams. When we’re done, all it takes is a swipe with an eraser or shirt sleeve, and the whiteboard is good as new. A whiteboard gives developers an opportunity to drop the mouse, get up from our chair and stretch our legs. We also enjoy the innate childhood pleasure of drawing on the walls.
So then why limit our ideas to just a 3×4-foot patch on the wall? When we’re confined to the space of a typical whiteboard, our movements are constrained, and so our ideas may be limited as well. If whiteboards are the snowy goodness of developer minds, then perhaps we should have whiteboards everywhere.
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To be a “most important” innovation, an innovation has to be an idea that is very widely used and is critically important where it applies. – David A. Wheeler
It’s not easy choosing the best innovators in an industry defined by innovation. The nature of software is such that the technologies, systems and products completely refresh every decade or so. The triumphant invention of just 10 years ago is now considered “legacy” or even obsolete. So making a lasting impression in the software business is a tough task indeed.
Following is my list of the top 10 software innovators of all time. Inclusion on this list doesn’t mean the person came up with every idea or wrote every byte of code. Rather, these are the people whose leadership, ideas, designs and products propelled the software industry forward by leaps and bounds. Their innovations affect us greatly even today.
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