Apr 24

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 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 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

Shawn Fanning

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

Steve Chen + Chad Hurley

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 TorvaldsLinus 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 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 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 JobsSteve 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

Tim Berners Lee 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 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.

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Article published on April 24, 2008

39 Responses to “Top 10 Software Innovators of All Time”

  1. Aaron Says:

    John Carmack. From Commander Keen through Doom 3 (and possibly beyond), Carmack has constantly pushed the boundaries of what is considered possible in computer graphics. You can write the rest 🙂

  2. Tim Stewart Says:

    Do you have some examples of software innovations that Bill Gates has inspired? To make sure we’re on the same page, innovation means: The act of introducing something new. (American Heritage Dictionary).

    Let me anticipate some possible answers:

    – Graphical User Interface
    – MS-DOS
    – Spreadsheet
    – Web Browser
    – Networking

    These had all been done before by other companies and/or institutions.

    I will admit that Bill has brought these things to the masses but that’s not innovation.

    Here are some things that Bill has innovated:

    – Blue Screen of Death
    – Clippy
    – Microsoft Bob
    – FUD


  3. gm Says:

    Tim Stewart, [I disagree].

    How about bringing computing to the masses? Yes it had been done, but the crucial fact was that BG did it BETTER. Not only was it better, but it was good enough for the masses. Do you even grasp the enormity of that?

    Did Apple invent anything? No… Not even the GUI, they ripped it off from XEROX PARC. Why is Apple a great, innovative company? Because whatever they set their sights to, almost everything they do it better.

    Blah, whatever. Even Apple has switched to the “inferior” x86 architecture that MS popularized.

    [You should have] included in your list of MS innovations “non-free software”.

    [Edited: No personal attacks, thanks!]

  4. Mark Says:

    Justin Frankel – Winamp, Gnutella, REAPER

  5. Irishman Says:

    Arthur C. Clarke
    HG Wells
    Isaac Asimov

    Can you name a software innovation that they didn’t write about first?

  6. Irishman Says:

    – Edgar Codd – Larry only made relational databases popular – Edgar is credited with making them first
    – Grady Booch – credited with object oriented programming
    – Gordon Moore
    – Jack Kilby – inventor of microchip
    – Steve Wosniak – Apple founder – forget Steve Jobs – Steve W was the innovator of the two – SJ was the marketing guy
    – Seymour Cray

  7. Hacardos Says:

    What does microchips have to do with software? Anyway, how about Nolan Bushnell? How about whoever invented the ragdoll physics engine, and who invented 3D computer graphics?

  8. Alan Carter Says:

    Ada Lovelace: Symbolic manipulation.
    Tony Hoare / Edsgar Dijkstra: Formalism, case statements, guards, quicksort, structured programming etc. (It’s reasonable to put these two greats together – their correspondence is still great reading.)
    Gary Kildall: CP/M, father of all microcomputer OSes.

  9. Gheorghe Matei Says:

    About the past it’s easy to talk. For the future is essentials to talk. My research is for the future.
    Fire! Fire!! Fire to the current software model!!!
    Beyond Any Imagination!
    That is Beyond Elites, Luminaries, Gurus, Experts, Analysts, CIO, CEO, and so on.
    I talk about a fundamental invention in software:
    The Informational Individual
    the final frontier of the software concepts
    the unique universal concept of the Informational Society.
    http://gheorghematei.blogspot.com BRAINERS CLUB

  10. Gheorghe Matei Says:

    You approached an impossible subject! If you are interested in serious things I propose to think in the future! It is possible a fundamental invention in the future software? Or, how we go out from this “Software Babilon(Babel)”? The past will be always unclear. I didn’t never like the history book.

  11. Tim Stewart Says:

    I respectfully disagree. Bringing Microsoft’s software to the masses was 3 parts licensing agreements with hardware manufacturers and 2 parts marketing with a healthy dash of FUD. None of those ingredients have anything to with software innovation which is what this list was all about.

  12. timm Says:

    I define innovation as creating something useful out of nothing. Microsoft created a 600-million-user common platform that delivered computing to the masses. Previously computers were primarily limited to scientists and large business using dumb terminals wired to mainframes.

    The fact that marketing and licensing were an important part of the equation proves that software is not just about bits and bytes, but mostly about delivering real products that people find useful. Good technology doesn’t always win (Betamax, Amiga, Macintosh, Netscape, HD-DVD). Ultimately it’s the total package and value provided, plus market dynamics and a bit o’ luck.

    Thanks for your comments, great discussion!

  13. XANEX information. » XANEX.US Says:

    […] the software industry forward by leaps and bounds. Their innovations affect us greatly even today.read more | digg […]

  14. Nicolae Says:

    How did you forgot Richard Stallman the father of free software ?

    Without GNU, Linux is nothing.


  15. Alan Carvalho Says:

    Grace Hopper, the mother of the COBOL language

  16. great leap Says:

    […] the software industry forward by leaps and bounds. Their innovations affect us greatly even today.https://www.devtopics.com/top-10-software-innovators-of-all-time/Nicaragua&39s Great Leap Forward – TIMEThe country&39s ex-Marxist President says that the economic […]

  17. Null Person Says:

    YouTube as a Top 10 software innovation? Excuse me while I chuckle.

    This list reads more as a “Top 10 Wielders of Software Effectively Of All Time” list.

  18. tomcat Says:

    Forgot about UNIX and Bell Labs innovators Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie

  19. Stephen Crowley Says:

    Bill gates certainly isn’t one of them. he’s a lucky lack and a sharp guy but no genius and certainly no revolution. Put John Carmack on the list, hands down far more influential from a ACTUALLY PRODUCING VALUE perspective, rather than sitting on piles of money and meekly directing fleets of programming drones.

  20. What I Read Today « DreamXtream’s Weblog Says:

    […] Top 10 Software Innovators of All Time […]

  21. rubayeet Says:

    Is there any specific reason for which Jawed Karim was not mentioned as a co-founder of YouTube in your article?

  22. Jenna Says:

    Youtube innovative?


    One might say, “Not at all.”

    It was an extension of a photo sharing website. It was the obvious next step. To be innovative, you have to do something non-obvious.

  23. timm Says:

    Re: To be innovative, you have to do something non-obvious.

    The irony of invention is that it often looks obvious after the fact. There were video sharing sites before YouTube (a friend of mine started one), but YouTube had that magical mix of technology, marketing, ease-of-use, cool factor, network effect and timing, which has resulted in 74 million views per month and made video self-expression mainstream. The fact is no one has been able to do it as well as YouTube before and since.

  24. Ralph H Says:

    Marketing is 50% of the innovation, but so is economic necessity.
    History rewards the winners:

    Keep the Steves (Jobs, Wozniak) together.
    K&R at Bell Labs, they were reacting to AT&T’s withdrawal from Multics.

    But I would add Stallman for the GNU project, because his GPL innovation means software that Google and Yahoo and Apple now rely on is available for them to adopt (and share)

    Listing Brin and Page without Filo and Yang.

    What about John McCarty at Stanford? His Lisp language is the foundation of Map and Reduce (which is what Google built their
    scalable solution on)

    Bill Joy at Berkeley and later Sun?

    IBM is not listed:
    (Phil Estridge broke the mold (for IBM) and outsourced portions of the IBM PC offering – notably the OS)

  25. great leap forward Says:

    […] […]

  26. Michal Says:

    Dear Tim Stewart and others,
    I think the important thing to realize is that it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the execution. Which in turn means that innovator is not the one who thinks of something but the one who executes the idea so well that people will actually use his product.
    There was a internet search sites before Google, there was video online before youtube, there was GUI before Mac and Windows, there was mp3 players before iPod, there was databases before Oracle and so on and so on. So once again.

  27. mario Says:

    I agree with Michal, Every one might see what they can see and feel what they can touch. If they feel comfort and confident about a product then the creator/innovator of product is appreciated, no matter who first came for the idea, almost people need useful things that they can use and implement right away not the brilliant things but useless/unpractical. Love You Guys 🙂

  28. Desktop Computer Inventor Charles Thacker Wins Turing Award Says:

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  29. Sandra Says:

    Folks intersted in hearing from some of the rainmakers of innovation in the software world will enjoy picking up a copy of “Making it Big in Software: Get the job. Work the org. Become great.”, a book about how to make the most of your career in sofwtare, which includes 17 exclusive interviewes with some of the biggest names in the industry (including a few from the list in the article above). I’ve read this book and found it to be invaluable.

    The interviews are about their careers, and their advice for others. Here are the people included. I personally loved the interviews with Ray Tomlinson, James Gosling, and Bjarne Stroustrup:

    Steve Wozniak, Inventor, Apple computer
    John Schwarz, CEO, Business Objects
    James Gosling, Inventor, Java programming language
    Marissa Mayer, Google VP, Search Products and User Experience
    Jon Bentley, Author, Programming Pearls
    Marc Benioff, CEO and founder, Salesforce.com
    Grady Booch, IBM Fellow and co-founder Rational Software
    Bjarne Stroustrup, Inventor, C++ programming language
    David Vaskevitch, Microsoft CTO
    Linus Torvalds, Creator, Linux operating system kernel
    Richard Stallman, Founder, Free software movement
    Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research
    Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Fellow and Windows Architect
    Tom Malloy, Adobe Chief Software Architect
    Diane Greene, Co-founder and past CEO of VMware
    Robert Kahn, Co-inventor, the Internet
    Ray Tomlinson, Inventor, email

    You can see more about the book, Making it Big in Software here:

  30. Pat Says:

    This is a bogus list. How does Torvalds come ahead of Ritchie/Thomson. Bill Gates is a business man as is Larry Elision, how do you put Tim Berners-Lee with them? You are confused with what you think is innovation.

  31. Sean Says:

    No Dan Ingalls or Alan Kay? Son, I am disappoint.

  32. Prefabrik Says:

    I really like Steve Jobbs and Bill Gates. They build competetive companies and all over the worl they are in a big race. These two man are really succesfull in their area. Special thanks to the author. Thanks for sharing such an informative post.

  33. Christina Says:

    True true! But I really think you should also mention the social media, more specific “Facebook”.. :). This is really big!

  34. Dennis Says:

    Zuckerberg. He’s reshaping how humanity interacts.

  35. Microsoft Hoping to Lure Developers to Windows Phone 7 Says:

    […] Microsoft in the smartphone market, but never count out a company with $50 billion cash on hand and Bill Gates on its Board of Directors.  Following are some major initiatives that Microsoft hopes will […]

  36. .NET Isn’t Dead Says:

    […] Bill Gates semi-retired to start his much more important mission to save the world.  Steve Ballmer took […]

  37. Rohit Mandge Says:

    hey you publisher.
    I am not offending you. but let me tell you that you are an idiot for not putting the greatest innovator of all time in this list.

    “Sir Dennis Ritchie”..

    without him your Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would have been nowhere.
    Without him there wouldn’t have been C and UNIX on which your mac os is built or rather copied. got it.

  38. Raunu Gebo Says:

    Thanks for every new invention, however, there is room for more invention and please consider the population of the most developing countries across the world when designing systems.

  39. Peps Says:

    Steve Job did not make a computer in his entire life.
    He was a businessman not an ingineer.

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