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Visit the Iterations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History Web site

Building a Future for Software History

"As computers have become ubiquitous in society, the history of computing has chronicled the development of machines. It has largely overlooked, however, the ghost in the machine—the software that creates and restricts its operations," according to an NSF award abstract. While a group of scholars in the history of computing has emerged over the past two decades, publishing important works on hardware technologies, there has been virtually no comparable scholarship focusing on the largely invisible evolution of software development.

Image of banner from the online journal, 'Iterations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History.'
Image of banner from the online journal, 'Iterations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History.'
To help remedy this hardware-software disparity, the Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation's KDI program, has launched a multi-faceted program to stimulate and advance work on software history. The program includes compiling a historical dictionary of software technology and terminology, an oral history with interviews of pioneering software developers and an online software history journal.

The CBI effort is being overseen by Jeffrey R. Yost, associate director of the institute, and coordinated by Philip L. Frana, a postdoctoral associate. Yost serves as editor of the online peer-reviewed journal, Iterations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History (http://www.cbi.umn.edu/iterations/tc.html).

Picture of Jeffrey R. Yost
Picture of
Jeffrey R. Yost
 
Since it was launched in fall 2002, the journal has featured articles on topics including the 20th anniversary of TCP/IP, the Internet protocol; battles between Microsoft and developers of open-source software; software in the petroleum industry; and social uses of electronic mail. Upcoming pieces planned for the journal, according to Frana, deal with PLATO educational software developed at Control Data Corporation, the history of the Indian software industry, and early compiler design.

Frana estimates that there are only about 150 people around the world focusing on software history. "We're kind of creating this new subspecialty with this journal. It's been really helpful in pulling people together who otherwise wouldn't be interacting."

The oral history program is also a key part of the effort. "I think it's useful to draw these people out, because by and large this is a community that works orally rather than in written form," Frana observes. "They may pass e-mail or send things back and forth, but that's really ephemeral. You don't have these large research collections, manuscript papers, left behind when these people finish their work. It sort of disappears into the ether. It's just bits floating around out there. And this is one way to get a handle on it."

Picture of Philip L. Frana
Picture of
Philip L. Frana
 
In addition to developing retrospective material, the CBI project is also looking toward the future, Frana says. "Looking forward, one of the things we're trying to get a handle on is the archival impetus—what do we collect now … what kinds of collections can we expect to receive and what kinds of collections should we be looking for. Corporations don't keep things the way they used to. … That's one of the real pressures we face today … what kind of archival resources will be available to historians in the future."

Work on the CBI project has been key to the development of Frana's professional career. "I think it's been crucially important for me. I'm a postdoc. This is my first position out of graduate school. I was given the opportunity to manage a half-million-dollar grant. I don't think many people in that position get that kind of opportunity, the kind of oversight that I've had here at CBI. It's a fantastic place to do this kind of collaborative research."

 

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