Related methods and tools

The book Software: A Technical History has plenty of exercises and projects at the end of each chapter, to get readers thinking about software and its history and to motivate additional research. For example, here’s exercise 1 (of 27 exercises and 8 projects) from chapter 1 (Introduction to Software History):

Why does the definition of software in this text include “related methods and tools?” What does knowing about the methods and tools used to develop software tell us about the software?

Kim W. Tracy, Software: A Technical History (p. 43)

The definition is this: Software is the set of programs, concepts, tools, and methods used to produce a running system on computing devices. (p. 2)

Those tools and methods are sometimes “a running system on computing devices” themselves, in which case they trivially fall into the definition of software: an Integrated Development Environment is a software system that people use to produce software systems.

Sometimes, the tools aren’t themselves “a running system on computing devices”. Flowcharts, UML diagrams, whiteboards, card punches, graph-paper bitmaps, and other artifacts are not themselves applications of computing, and neither are methods and methodologies like Object-Oriented Programming, the Personal Software Process, or XP.

Both the computer-based and non-computer-based tools and methods influence the system that people create. The system is a realization on a computing machine of an abstract design that’s intended to address some set of desires or needs. The design itself is an important part of the software because it’s the thing that the running system is intended to realize.

The tools and methods are themselves part of the design because they influence and constrain how people think about the system they’re realizing, the attributes of the realized system, and how people collaborate to produce that system. As an example, software developers using Simula-67 create classes as types that encapsulated part of their design, and instantiate objects as example members of those types within their system. Software developers using Smalltalk do the same thing, but documentation about Simula-67 encourages thinking about hierarchical type systems within a structured programming paradigm, and documentation about Smalltalk encourages thinking about active objects within an object-oriented paradigm. So people in a community of Simula-67 programmers and people in a community of Smalltalk programmers would design different systems that work in different ways, even though using very similar tools.

When I read the definition of software and the exercise, I initially thought that it was wrong to think of the tools and methods as part of the software, even though it’s important to include the tools and methods (and the associated social and cultural context of their legitimacy, popularity, and importance) in a consideration of software history. I considered a tighter definition, that includes the running programs, the (intangible) artifacts that comprise those programs, and any source code used in creating those artifacts. Reflecting on the exercise and writing this response, I see that this is an arbitrary place to draw the boundary, and that a definition of software that includes the design and methods used in creating the artifacts is also workable.

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