Computer Chronicles Revisited Special No. 9 — The 1986 Excellence in Software Awards

The Software Publishers Association (SPA) began in 1984 as the lobbying arm for the still-nascent computer software industry. The SPA later became intimately associated with Computer Chronicles. The organization was a presenting sponsor for several seasons, and during the 1990s the Chronicles dedicated episodes to coverage of the SPA’s annual software awards, the “Codies.” By the end of Chronicles’ run in 2002, the SPA had merged with the Information Industry Association to form the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), which continues to hand out the Codies today.

The Codies actually started out with the less-succinct name of the “Excellence in Software Awards.” Ken Wasch, the SPA’s founder and first president, told the Washington Post in June 1986 that there were several other names initially considered, including “the RAM awards,” “the Softies,” and even the “Woz” awards in honor of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. (Woz said “no” to that idea, according to Wasch.)

The SPA formally presented its first Excellence in Software Awards on April 18, 1986, at a ceremony held at the Sheraton Hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. There were 16 awards presented in all. The winners were selected by a mail-in ballot conducted among the SPA’s roughly 150 members at the time.

Microsoft, Electronic Arts the Big Winners

Nine of the 16 awards went to products published by two companies that are still big names in software today: Microsoft and Electronic Arts. Microsoft took home the top award for “Best Software Product” for the first version of Windows, defeating EA’s Deluxe Paint, Brøderbund’s vector-graphics animation program Fantavision, Springboard Software’s entry-level desktop publishing program The Newsroom, and the database program Business Filevision from Telos Software. Windows also claimed the awards for “Best User Interface” and “Best Technical Achievement.” (Deluxe Paint was also a nominee in both of these categories.)

Microsoft’s other big winner was the spreadsheet Excel, which at this point was a Macintosh-exclusive program. Excel claimed “Best Business Product,” beating out Windows and Business Filevision as well as Ashton-Tate’s dBase III+ and MacOne Write, a business accounting program published by Sierra On-Line. Excel also won “Best Productivity Product,” a category where Apple received its lone nomination for MacDraw.

As for Electronic Arts, it managed to collect two awards for Deluxe Paint: “Best Graphics Program” and a tie with The Newsroom for “Best Creativity Product.” EA’s other two winners were Deluxe Music Construction Set (Best Sound Effects and Music) and the Amiga port of the basketball game One-on-One (Best Adaptation to a New Computer Format).

Surprisingly, EA did not claim the top game award for “Best Entertainment Product” or even receive a single nomination in that category. The winner was Deja Vu, a graphical point-and-click adventure game originally developed for the Macintosh by ICOM Simulations, Inc., and published by Illinois-based Mindscape. (The game was also known as Deja Vu: A Nightmare Comes True!) The other nominees were Hacker, an adventure game from Activision; Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar from Origin Systems; King’s Quest II from Sierra On-Line; Airborne!, a Macintosh arcade game developed by Silicon Beach Software; and NFL Challenge, a football simulation game from XOR Corporation that displayed plays as a series of animated X-and-O diagrams. Deja Vu also won “Best New World,” where the other nominees again included Ultima IV and Hacker.

The other programs that won awards were:

  • The New Electronic Encyclopedia by Grolier, for “Best Adaptation from Another Medium”;
  • Lotus Jazz for “Best Software Packaging”;
  • Brøderbund’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? for “Best Learning Product”;
  • Jet by Sublogic for “Best Simulation Product”; and
  • PageMaker by Aldus for “Best New Use of a Computer.” (PageMaker was also nominated for “Best Productivity Product.”)

Consumers Favored Desktop Publishing, Word Processing, and Educational Games

In addition to handing out awards for software excellence, the SPA also certified various sales awards, similar to the recording industry. In 1986 the SPA handed out “Platinum,” and “Gold,” and “Silver” awards for software programs that sold at least 250,000, 100,000, and 50,000 copies, respectively. Stewart Cheifet actually mentioned these awards during an October 1986 “Random Access” segment.

There were only two certified Platinum winners at the time: Brøderbund’s The Print Shop and Springboard’s The Newsroom, the latter of which as noted was also a co-winner of the SPA’s award for “Best Creativity Product.” The Newsroom was so popular in fact that its first clip art expansion pack was also certified as a Gold winner.

Altogether there were 24 Gold winners mentioned in Cheifet’s report, although a few more programs would earn that honor by the end of 1986. It’s interesting to see how the public’s taste matched and/or diverged from the SPA’s award winners. For example, you don’t see any of the Macintosh programs like Deja Vu or Airborne! on the Gold list, which makes sense given how few Macs were actually on the market at this point relative to other platforms. But there is some overlap, notably EA’s One-on-One and Origin’s Ultima IV. (Exodus: Ultima III also made the Gold list.)

As one of the first major computer game publishers, EA was quite well represented on the Gold list. Its other entries included two of the company’s original six products: Archon: The Light and the Dark and Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set. Other EA-published Gold winners included Will Harvey’s original Music Construction Set, Raymond Tobey’s Skyfox, and Danielle Bunten Berry’s The Seven Cities of Gold. (Skyfox was also nominated for two Excellence in Software awards.)

The other Gold-certified programs were:

  • two of Epyx’s Olympic sports-themed titles, Winter Games and Summer Games;
  • two of future Civilization designer Sid Meier’s military simulators published by his first company, Microprose: Silent Service and F-15 Strike Eagle;
  • Frogger, the Konami arcade game, which was ported to a number of early computer systems;
  • a bunch of early word processing programs targeting the home market, including Sierra On-Line’s HomeWord, Spinnaker’s Kidwriter, Batteries Included’s PaperClip, and Timeworks’ Word Writer; and
  • an assortment of educational programs for young children, including Counterpoint Software’s Early Games, Spinnaker’s Story Machine, CBS Software’s Success with Math, and Math Blaster! and Word Attack! from Davidson(!) & Associates.

It is important to note that these awards were based on sales figures reported by the individual publishers and certified by the SPA. So this should not be taken as a complete or “canoical” list of all best-selling programs from this time period. Indeed, the SPA refused to certify at least one program that met the organization’s threshold for sales award status. According to a September 1985 report in InfoWorld, the SPA’s Ken Wasch said the board of directors denied Silver-award certification to Central Point Software’s Copy II PC because the disk copying utility “involves activities which are injurious to the purposes of the association.” In other words, the SPA refused to acknowledge the popularity of a program used to get around many of its members’ copy-protection schemes.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • There was one other Gold-certified program from the October 1986 list, although it was more of a peripheral than a piece of software. Epyx published a Fast Load cartridge exclusively for the Commodore 64. The Fast Load was specifically designed to improve the notoriously slow loading times of the C64’s floppy disk drives.
  • Perhaps the most forgotten program from the 1986 Excellence in Software Awards was MCE’s Blueprint for Decision Making, which received three nominations including one for “Best Software Product.” All I could find about this product online was a single paragraph in an old educational software catalog, which described Blueprint as a $70 program that offered junior high and high school age students “practice in making decisions.”
  • Although Microsoft was an early leader within the SPA–as demonstrated by its success at the 1986 awards–the company later had a very nasty falling out with the lobbying group. The SPA and its successor organization, the SIIA, publicly backed the United States Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the 1990s, prompting Microsoft to formally resign from the SIIA in 2000.
  • By 1989, the SPA started certifying Diamond awards for programs that sold over 500,000 copies. Brøderbund claimed two of the first spots on this list with The Print Shop and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? If you want to learn more about the SPA’s sales awards lists from the late 1980s, Alex Smith and Jeff Daum of the podcast They Create Worlds did a two-part deep dive on the subject earlier this year.