25 Years of Mathematica
CHAMPAIGN — When Wolfram Research launched its Mathematica software 25 years ago this month, it gave students and professionals a whole new approach to visualizing and solving high-level math problems.
Now the technical computing software is celebrating its silver anniversary, and the next version — Mathematica 10.0 — is likely to be released sometime later this year.
As Roger Germundsson, the company's director of research and development, said, it's pretty rare when a piece of software is still being developed 25 years later.
To mark the anniversary, Wolfram Research staff gathered at Allerton Park, west of Monticello, last week to celebrate with music, games and food. On hand for the cake-cutting was Stephen Wolfram, the company's founder.
On the previous Friday, 419 employees gathered at Champaign's Hessel Park — just a couple blocks from company headquarters — for a collective photo, and Wolfram spoke at an all-company meeting about the firm's past, present and future.
When Mathematica debuted in 1988, Wolfram — then 28 — was director of the Center for Complex Systems Research at the University of Illinois. He developed the software on his own as a hobby.
As Wolfram explained it in a recent blog, his aim was to develop a computational system that could eventually handle all forms of algorithmic work.
Mathematica caught on quickly not only because it saved time solving mathematical problems, but also because its graphics gave users an intuitive feel for the math.
Over the years, the software has been adopted not only by academia, but also by commercial and government customers.
Today it's used by all of the top Fortune 50 companies and by the world's 50 largest universities, according to Wolfram Research. Mathematica's users number in the millions, but a precise count is difficult since site licenses often cover multiple users.
The majority of users are academic, Germundsson said, but less than 50 percent of Mathematica's revenue comes from academia.
Plenty of professionals find applications for Mathematica, with those in math, physics, electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science among the common users.
But Wolfram Research has launched a number of related products, such as SystemModeler and Finance Platform, to appeal to particular professional niches.
"New products are helpful in opening the door to new users," Germundsson said.
Tracing Mathematica's history, Germundsson said the software enjoyed a "big spurt" its first three years or so before settling into "gradual modest growth." Demand picked up again toward the end of the 1990s, he added.
Mathematica is truly an international product, with less than 50 percent of sales coming from the United States, he said.
Even so, the U.S. remains the largest market, followed by Europe and East Asia, which includes Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and extends to Australia.
China and India are still considered emerging markets for Mathematica, and Mexico and Brazil are "coming along," Germundsson said.
The company has endured software piracy through the years, but piracy rates have abated in developing countries as the software becomes more affordable, he said.
Piracy isn't much of a problem in Eastern Europe anymore, but piracy rates remain high in Russia and China, Germundsson said.
Today the company has, in addition to its headquarters in Champaign, offices in Cambridge, Mass.; Oxfordshire, England; Tokyo; and Paris. Germundsson said Wolfram also has an office in Peru and is starting one in India.
Because academia is a major market for Mathematica, the company has emphasized site-license deals with colleges and universities, enabling their students to use the software as part of the arrangement.
Now an increasing number of deals for Mathematica are being arranged at the community college and high school level, Germundsson said.
Just as other industries have to adapt to changing technologies, so does Wolfram Research. Through the years, Mathematica had to be adapted for various platforms, and with changes taking place in higher education, the company is considering how the software can best be used in massive open online courses.
When asked about the upcoming Mathematica 10.0, Germundsson said one of the big focus areas will be on "big data, statistics and the modeling of data." The software industry is also paying a lot of attention to cloud and tablet technology.
How well Wolfram Research addresses those — and other — changes will help determine if Mathematica is still chugging along 25 years from now.
As for making it the first 25 years, Germundsson said, "It comes down to building a really good product that solves people's problems."