For the first time in its 36-year history, the MacRobert Award for innovation in engineering has been awarded to a software development team.
The prize, awarded on Thursday by the Royal Academy of Engineering and presented by the Duke of Edinburgh, was won by a team from IBM's Hursley Lab for developing WebSphere MQ application integration software.
The software, credited for forwarding the "e-commerce revolution" by the judging panel, beat off stiff competition from Pilkington self-cleaning windows, Sharp's 3D displays and Delphi's emission-busting fuel injection system.
Senior technical staff member Graham Spittle said winning the award would help software development improve its standing as a legitimate engineering discipline. "It's fabulous to receive an award like this that recognises development of software as engineering discipline. Software underpins so many other areas of science, so we hope winning this award will go so way towards rejuvenating its reputation," he said.
Spittle admitted that the biggest problem was actually explaining what WebSphere MQ actually does to a panel largely unfamiliar with the intricacies of middleware and application integration. "You can't touch it or feel it like a self-cleaning window or a diesel engine, so you end up explaining it as this invisible bridge connecting all disparate systems," he added.
WebSphere MQ, formerly known as MQ Series, has been in development for over 10 years by the team at Hursley and provides automatic application integration between multiple platforms without the need for custom coding.
IBM claims that while most IT suppliers advocated solving the proliferation of non-compatible systems by replacement, the Hursley team "came-up with the simple but heretical idea" of connecting existing systems.
"When you realise how many IT systems have to talk to each other when, for example, you check your balance and transfer funds online, then you really start to appreciate the value of this innovation. By enabling seamless communications between computers, the engineers at Hursley have effectively created the oil that now keeps the world's e-commerce machine running," said Dr Robin Paul FREng, chairman of the MacRobert Award Judging Panel.