The U.S. military is one of the largest users of computer equipment in the world, so, when the Defense Department ordered a whole new software language, a new industry was born as well.
After 10 years of development, the Ada language is moving beyond the realm of research to become a commercial product, and a slew of start-up companies are hoping to cash in on a market that may total $15 billion in annual sales to the military alone by 1990.
By the end of this year, there should be some 30 Ada translators, called compilers, on the market that have met the conditions set by the Pentagon, including the first compiler for use on a personal computer.
Mostly Military Sales
The majority of Ada sales are now made to the military, but consultants and industry officials believe that sales to the commercial sector will eventually become larger than military applications. The availability of a compiler for desk-top computers could hasten that eventuality.
"Until now, Ada compilers have been very expensive and not accessible to most software developers," said Jean Ichbia, president and founder of Paris-based Alsys S.A., which introduced the first Ada compiler for IBM's PC-AT personal computer last week.
The AT compiler, which will be priced below $3,000, "will definitely accelerate the development of the commercial market," Ichbia said.
The major impetus behind Ada, however, is the Pentagon, which decided in 1975 that it had to find a way to standardize the thousands of different software systems that it uses, both to reduce costs and increase ease of use. Currently, software is written in one of more than 300 languages, most of them developed in the 1950s. Computers that run programs written in one language cannot understand those written in another.
In addition, most languages now require software developers to write in an extremely complex code of zeros and ones. Programmers often find it close to impossible to understand the meaning of software written by their predecessors.
The Pentagon successfully pushed the development of the Cobol language, now one of the most widely used, in the 1950s and decided to do the same again, this time demanding a language that is both easy to understand and adaptable to any computer
It also decided to give the language a sexy name. Ada is not an acronym but the name of Lord Byron's daughter, Lady Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), a mathematician who is considered the first computer programmer.
In 1979, the Pentagon settled on the parameters for the new language and chose a design team headed by Ichbia, then at CII-Honeywell-Bull. They came up with a language that uses interchangeable and easy-to-read blocks of code that can be assembled into larger programs, rather than the line-by-line code that programs in other languages use.
Ada is considered to offer a faster performance than other languages, but, more importantly, a program written in Cobol can be run on a variety of different computer models without any rewrites.
After extensive testing to make sure the new language met its requirements, the Pentagon last year mandated that "the Ada programming language shall become the single, common computer programming language for defense mission-critical applications" and estimated that it would save more than $1.5 billion annually when all branches of the service made the mandated switch to Ada.
The Ada standard has also been adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the militaries of Britain, Italy and West Germany.
Ada was chosen in September by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as the programming language for software developed for the manned space station, scheduled to be launched in 1992, and for an advanced air traffic control system being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The most significant commercial customer for Ada to date is Boeing Corp., which recently decided to use the language in the development of its new fleet of commercial aircraft.
Despite the market's potential, virtually none of the large, established software houses have gotten involved with Ada. , in part because they already have huge investments in other languages such as Fortran, Cobol and Assembly.
Consequently, the most promising Ada companies are start-ups with such strange-sounding names as Verdix Corp., Telesoft Inc., Softech Corp. and Alsys.
Charles Bickley, manager of the Ada product line for Softech, said there is more than enough room for the more than 30 Ada companies in existence and he did not expect the kind of shakeout that other segments of the software industry experienced over the past year.