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A tribute to Ada's Jean Ichbiah

Programming pioneer

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black and white head and shoulders shot of Jean IchbiahObituary Second acts are rare in the computer industry but Jean Ichbiah, who died this week, managed it. Not only did he revolutionise software development for military computer systems with the Ada programming language, but he also devised a widely-used fast text-entry system for handheld computers.

Ichbiah was an atypical programming pioneer in many ways. At a time when it was becoming fashionable for programmers to wear their hair long and sport polo shirts and sandals, Ichbiah opted for neatly trimmed hair and stylish suits. I met him in 1979 just after his team at CII Honeywell Bull had won the Ada contract and, having no idea what he looked like, thought the smart, unassuming gentleman who greeted me in the lobby of a London Hotel was the public relations officer. Fortunately, I managed to conceal my surprise as it became evident that this was the man I had come to interview.

Given the complexity of negotiating with bureaucracy at the US Department of Defense (DoD), Ada's inventor needed to be a consummate diplomat and Ichbiah combined his undoubted technical skill with a master's degree in diplomacy. Even if he had realised I had mis-identified him, he was far too much of a gentleman to mention it.

Ada went on to change the way the US military - and the rest of NATO - built embedded computer systems. More importantly, in 10 years Ada usage is reckoned to have slashed the number of high level languages used by the DoD by a order of magnitude.

Ichbiah went on to found first Alsys - an Ada compiler development company - and, later, Textware - a company which develops text entry software for personal digital assistants (PDA).

He was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur and a Certificate of Distinguished Service from the DoD for his work on Ada. He was also a member of the French Academy of Sciences. ®

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