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Can Software Be Saved?

From the Editor in Chief
November 1, 2003

It’s the software that counts. we may get excited about the latest hardware-computers with sleek designs, ever bigger hard drives, faster processors, and flashy features like wireless connections. But in the end, it’s the software that keeps us buying, because without software-whether for word processing and presentations, playing games and music, or keeping the family photos-we can’t use any of that hardware power. For all the good it does us, however, software has a world of problems: it’s hard to use, and it crashes far too often. That’s largely because it’s written by human programmers, and with millions of lines of code in a typical application, bugs are inevitable. In fact, in 2000 approximately one-fourth of all U.S. commercial software projects were canned-costing firms a staggering $67 billion.

Which is why Technology Review has paid so much attention over the past few years to innovative efforts aimed at fixing what ails software. Our July/August 2002 cover story, “Why Software Is So Bad,” set the standard, and software quality assurance made our “10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World” list in February 2003. Now, with this month’s cover story and special report “Extreme Software,” we are turning our attention again to this important topic with exclusive articles on a pair of efforts that could transform the software industry.

Our package is built around two of the most interesting, colorful, and effective leaders in the field: Charles Simonyi and Mitch Kapor. As a Xerox Palo Alto Research Center researcher in the 1970s, Simonyi produced the first “what you see is what you get” word-processing program. He went on to become chief architect at Microsoft. Kapor, as founder of Lotus Development, did more than almost anyone to usher in the PC revolution of the 1980s by bringing the world the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet that turned desktop computers into truly useful business tools.

Now these two pioneers are tapping their personal fortunes to bankroll separate efforts at establishing a new software era. Simonyi, with his startup Intentional Software, wants to automate much of code writing, thereby making programs dramatically less buggy. At the same time, he wants to make it easy for nonexperts to refine the programs they use-based not on their knowledge of programming but on what they intend for the software to do. You’ll find the fascinating account of Simonyi’s work in “Everyone’s a Programmer,” by contributing writer Claire Tristram. Sidebars to this piece examine two other trends in the industry: “extreme programming,” an innovative attempt to enhance the aspects of the code-writing process that work and throw out those that don’t, and the development of “self-healing” software that fixes its own bugs before they become a problem for you.

Complementing this package is “Trash Your Desktop,” the story of Kapor and his ambitious project code-named Chandler. Chandler has the not-so-modest goal of revolutionizing the way we manage ideas-by ridding us of the need to dig up information from the assortment of applications represented by icons on our desktops. As Kapor puts it, software today is “too difficult, too limiting, and pretty severely so, and it’s a raw deal.” The idea behind Chandler is that computers should adapt to what their owners are working on, automatically bringing up all data relevant to the subject at hand. For our piece, writer Michael Fitzgerald secured the first in-depth journalistic access to the project-and we think you’ll savor the changes it portends.

The story of this software revolution is just one element of a great issue. Debuting this month is a bimonthly column on the future of computing by Rodney Brooks, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Brooks, a world leader in AI and robotics, starts his new column with a bang by looking at a bold idea that may not be as far out as it seems: a direct brain-to-Internet interface.

Also new with this issue is “Launch Pad,” a monthly department that offers an early look at the most exciting companies spinning off from universities around the world. Lifting off this month: Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a company cofounded by Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, who was also a cofounder of Biogen. Alnylam is based on the five-year-old discovery of RNA interference (RNAi) in animals, a natural process in which RNA molecules turn off the workings of particular genes. If it can be controlled in the lab, RNAi could turn into one of the most potent techniques for creating new drugs to come along in years.

Putting out a great magazine, like software design, entails a commitment to constant improvement. These new elements, combined with our evolving coverage of emerging technologies, create the framework for an even better window on the future of economic growthand opportunity.

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