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Forty Years Later, ADPAC Lives

Featured on the cover of the inaugural issue of Computerworld, the programming language and the software company that developed it have survived against formidable odds.

By Don Tennant
March 29, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - "COBOL, RPG Bested By New Language?" That was the headline on page 1 of Computerworld's inaugural edition on June 21, 1967.
The language in question, called ADPAC, was developed at Applied Data Systems Inc., a San Francisco-based company that this month marked its 40th anniversary.
Peter Harris, the creator of ADPAC and founder of the company that subsequently changed its name to ADPAC Corp., calls himself "America's senior programmer." Harris, now 74 and the company's chief technology officer, recently spoke with Computerworld about what may well be the oldest software company in the world still operating under its founding leadership.

What ever happened to the ADPAC language? It's still widely used. We sold it to hundreds of companies, and we still have a number of them who have some major applications written in ADPAC.

"A number" being how many?
I would say a hundred. Travelers, Prudential, Citibank Corp. -- they all had it. I don't know [offhand] which companies are still using it, but I know there are up to a hundred companies paying us annual renewals. We get close to $1 million a year in annual renewals.
You would contend that ADPAC is superior to Cobol, no doubt. Everybody knows that. Technically, there's no question about it. It has more features, functions; it's easier to program in, easier to learn. Cobol was not very popular in the early days; it started to gain strength in the '70s.

To what do you attribute the fact that ADPAC never managed to unseat Cobol?
The government. There's no question about it. The federal government said, "All programming for the government will be done in Cobol."

Peter Harris, the creator of ADPAC
Peter Harris, the creator of ADPAC
Your company did a lot of Y2k conversion work. At what point did you, as one of the early programming pioneers, realize that there was going to be a problem on Jan. 1, 2000? I wrote letters [to clients] in 1968 and 1978 and 1988. All that time, I wrote letters, and I got absolutely no interest whatever. All of our [client] companies had ignored the Y2k issue. They were all acting like there was no change of century. I started to call them; I got absolutely no response -- no reaction. I couldn't convince anybody to do any work on it. I'm talking about Aetna, Travelers, Prudential, you name it -- big corporations. Nobody did anything about it until 1998.

So you foresaw this problem as early as 1968?
Well, you could see it, yeah. Here I am, thinking I'm in the forefront of software and data processing,


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