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.
10. Dan Bricklin – VisiCalc
Dan Bricklin was co-creator of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software available for personal computers. He received the Grace Hopper Award in 1981 for VisiCalc. He also founded Trellix, a website software company now owned by Web.com, and is founder and president of Software Garden.
VisiCalc was the first serious, mainstream business program for the IBM personal computer. It signaled the coming shift from large mainframes to small PCs, proving these personal computers could indeed be used for business. Many of the first IBM PCs were purchased just to run VisiCalc. Eventually Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel squashed VisiCalc, and unfortunately Bricklin never profited greatly from his invention.
9. Larry Ellison – Oracle
Larry Ellison founded Oracle in 1977 with $2000 of his own money. Oracle published the first commercially-available relational database and essentially launched the database market. Today, Oracle is the world’s leading supplier of database software and the second largest independent software company with nearly $10 billion in annual revenue. Oracle recently acquired PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems and Hyperion.
Ellison is living proof that business sense is an innate gift, not something to be gleaned from academic textbooks. A college dropout, Ellison is now a multi-billionaire renowned for his business sense, drive and ambition.
8. Shawn Fanning – Napster
In 1998, Shawn Fanning created Napster, the first massively popular peer-to-peer file sharing system. Fanning appeared on the cover of Wired magazine and quickly rose to fame. Napster peaked in 2001 with 26 million users worldwide. However, Napster also became the target of several music industry lawsuits, which ultimately killed the service. Since 2002, Roxio has owned the Napster name, which it used to rebrand its PressPlay music service.
Napster forever changed the entertainment business. By providing an enormous selection of free music to download, it enabled people to obtain just the music hits, effectively demoting the album. Napster also made it easy for music enthusiasts to download songs that were otherwise difficult to obtain, such as older music, unreleased recordings, and concert bootlegs. The music industry is still struggling to recover from the impact of Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing.
7. Chad Hurley and Steve Chen – YouTube
Chad Hurley and Steve Chen founded YouTube, a video sharing website where users can upload, view and share video clips. Google purchased YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion in Google stock. In January 2008, nearly 79 million users watched over 3 billion videos on YouTube. Currently YouTube hosts about 83.4 million unique videos and 3.75 million user channels. YouTube consumes more Internet bandwidth today than was used by the entire Internet in 2000.
YouTube has become a global hub of self-expression. It was one of the main factors for Time magazine’s declaration of “you” as the “Person of the Year” in 2006. It allows you to “wrest power from the few and help one another for nothing.” This will “not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.” You are no longer just receiving the news produced by media, but you are creating your own news and becoming the hero in your own movies.
6. Linus Torvalds – Linux
Linus Torvalds is a Finnish software engineer who initiated development of the Linux kernel. At the time, the GNU Project had created many of the components necessary for a free software operating system but lacked a solid kernel. The result is Linux, the world’s most popular operating system that’s not Windows.
Torvalds wrote about 2% of the Linux kernel himself, which is significant, given there are thousands of contributors to the open source operating system. Today Torvalds is the ultimate authority on what new code is incorporated into the standard Linux kernel. Torvalds owns the “Linux” trademark and manages the non-profit organization Linux International.
5. Marc Andreessen – Netscape
Marc Andreessen was the co-author of Mosaic, the first widely-used web browser, and co-founder of Netscape Communications. AOL acquired Netscape in 1999 for $4.2 billion and made Andreessen its Chief Technology Officer. Andreessen was also the co-founder and chairman of software company Opsware (originally Loudcloud) when it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. Currently he is co-founder of Ning, a company that provides a platform for social-networking websites.
Andreessen was 23 years old when he built the browser that launched the World Wide Web. The Netscape $2 billion IPO in 1995 propelled Andreessen into the spotlight and on the cover of Time magazine. Andreessen became the “poster-boy wunderkind of the Internet bubble generation: young, twenty-something, high-tech, ambitious, and worth millions (or billions) of dollars practically overnight.” (wiki)
4. Larry Page and Sergey Brin – Google
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Ph.D. students at Stanford, invented Google in 1996 as a research project. The Google website launched in 1997, and by the end of 1998 it had indexed about 60 million web pages. In 2000, Google began selling advertisements associated with search keywords and launched the pay-per-click model, until then a rarity in advertising. Google launched its IPO in 2004, raising $1.67 billion and giving it a market capitalization of $23 billion, making Page and Brin instant billionaires.
Today Google has a market cap of $180 billion and owns 70% of web searches. Google performs nearly 6 billion web searches each month. Google has also become a verb in popular lexicon. If there’s anything you need to know, you “Google it.”
3. Steve Jobs – Apple, Pixar
Steve Jobs is the CEO, chairman and co-founder of Apple Inc., and is the founder and former CEO of Pixar Animation Studios. In fiscal 2007, Apple had worldwide sales of $24 billion. Apple’s iPod and iTunes dominate the portable and online music markets with nearly 80% market share. The Apple Macintosh owns 8% of the personal computer market and provides an effective counter-weight to the dominance of Microsoft Windows. Pixar led the surge of software-animated feature films, including Toy Story and Finding Nemo, resulting in eight academy awards. The Walt Disney Company purchased Pixar from Jobs in 2006 for $7.4 billion.
Jobs “contributed greatly to the myths of the quirky, individualistic Silicon Valley entrepreneur, emphasizing the importance of design while understanding the crucial role aesthetics play in public appeal. His work driving forward the development of products that are both functional and elegant has earned him a devoted following.” (wiki)
2. Tim Berners-Lee – World Wide Web
Sir Tim Berners-Lee is an English developer who invented the World Wide Web in March 1989. Berners-Lee published the first website on August 6, 1991. The site provided an explanation about what the World Wide Web was, how to use a web browser, and how to set up a web server. Berners-Lee made his idea freely available, with no patent or royalties due. In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The W3C declared their standards must be based on royalty-free technology so they can be easily adopted by anyone.
Berners-Lee once said: “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas and — ta-da! — the World Wide Web.” The World Wide Web is one of the most important communication inventions in history, providing a standard platform for global communications and commerce. Today there are over 100 million websites and 45 billion web pages.
1. Bill Gates – Microsoft
Bill Gates is co-founder and chairman of Microsoft, the world’s largest software company with 79,000 employees in 102 countries and $51 billion in annual sales. More than 90% of personal computers use the Microsoft Windows operating system, and nearly 50% of web servers run Microsoft software. Microsoft also dabbles in cable TV, Internet portals, computer hardware, and gaming with the XBox. Microsoft is currently in process to acquire Yahoo.
Gates, the world’s third richest man, is leaving Microsoft in July to become a full-time philanthropist. His Gates Foundation is the largest in the world with an endowment of $38 billion.
Say what you will about Microsoft, but kudos to the man whose company delivered a world-dominant computing platform, offering software entrepreneurs a market 600 million strong and expected to hit a billion by 2010. When there is that much attention and opportunity focused in one place, we will continue to see incredible advances in software and hardware that fuel Moore’s Law and drive our information society.
So who would appear on your list of Top 10 Software Innovators? Please comment below.
Article published on April 24, 2008
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