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Category: History of computers

Chaos and opportunity

With both E3 and Apple’s WWDC happening this week, there’s been a lot of news. There’s also been a lot of hyperbolic commentary. I am not about to get into the arguments about the PS4 vs. the Xbox One or iOS 7 vs. Android.

It was Tim Cook’s presentation at WWDC that really got my attention. It’s unusual in an executive presentation to focus so much attention on a particular competitor, but Android was clearly on his mind. At one point, he focused harsh attention on fragmentation in the Android market, calling it “terrible” for developers. You can see the video here, at about 74 minutes.

As we saw in the 90s, chaos can breed innovation. At that time, the paradigm was that Macs always worked, but if you wanted the most advanced hardware, you should get a PC. I remember the editors at MacWorld, who deeply, truly loved the Mac, lusting over the (by the standards of the time) small, light, cheap notebooks PC users could get.

That being said, we understand the challenges of developing in the Android market. As I said in It’s finally here!, the Android ecosystem is sufficiently diverse that we know the benchmark will encounter configurations we’ve not seen before. If you have any problems with the MobileXPRT CP, please let us know at We want the benchmark to be the best it can be.


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Back to the future of source code

Today I’m spending a good chunk of the day participating in a panel discussion on the Kermit file transfer protocol as part of an oral history project with the Computer History Museum. A little over 30 years ago, I worked at Columbia University on the original versions of Kermit. In preparing for the panel discussions, I’ve been thinking about projects with available source code, like Kermit and HDXPRT.

Kermit was a protocol and set of programs for moving files before the Internet. We designed Kermit to work between a wide variety of computers—from IBM mainframes to DEC minicomputers to CP/M microcomputers. As such, we wrote the code to accommodate the lowest common denominator and assume as little as possible. That meant we could not assume that the computers all used ASCII characters (IBM mainframes used EBCDIC), that 8-bit characters would transmit over a phone line, or that packets of more than 100 characters were possible (DEC-20 computers specifically had an issue with that). The pair of Kermit programs negotiated what was possible at the beginning of a session and were able to work, often in situations where nothing else would.

We developed Kermit before the open-source movement or Gnu. We just had the simple notion that the more people who had access to Kermit, the better. Because we did not want incompatible versions of Kermit or the code to be used for the wrong purposes, we retained control (via copyright) while allowing others to use the code to create their own versions. We also encouraged them to share their code back with us so that we could then share it with others. In this way, Kermit grew to support all sorts of computers, in just about every corner of the planet as well as outer space.

In many ways, what we are doing with HDXPRT and its source code is similar. We are working to create a community of interested people who will work together to improve the product. Our hope is that by having the HDXPRT source code available to the Development Community, it will encourage openness, foster collaboration, and spark innovation.

I believe that what made Kermit successful was not so much the design as it was the community. I’m hoping that through the Development Community here, we can make just as successful HDXPRT, TouchXPRT, and who knows what else in the future. If you have not already joined, please do—the more folks we have, the better the community and its resulting benchmarks will be. Thanks!


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Looking back at the Mac

I expect that pretty much everyone is writing a blog/tribute to Steve Jobs. I’ll leave that to people more eloquent than I and to those who knew him. His death, however, made me think back to 1984 and the first computer I ever purchased with my own money—a 128KB original Macintosh. I was a mainframe and minicomputer systems programmer by training but had moved to CP/M and other personal computers. I had used a Lisa at work and had spent a bit of time on a Xerox Star, so the Mac’s UI concepts were very familiar to me. There was something special, however, about having it at home to play with. It was amazing to be able to use a word processor (MacWrite) that actually showed the fonts on the screen rather than having to embed Scribe (or even worse, TeX) commands into a text file to specify font changes. It was almost magical drawing things in MacPaint. None of what I drew was art, but it was fun. Even my two-year-old daughter found it fun to draw on the Mac with a mouse. A two-year-old using a mouse is nothing special today, but it was then.

I programmed on that early Mac using a C cross-compiler. With other folks at Columbia University, I wrote a version of the Kermit file transfer protocol for the Mac. My officemate even wrote a great Scrabble game for it. The owner of Scrabble was not interested in licensing it for use on a computer. It was a different time.

Over the years, I upgraded my Mac to 512KB and added a 5MB hard drive. I played games like Dark Castle on it. But, as all computers do, it got old and slow. Eventually, I packed it up. I bought a succession of MS-DOS PCs, Windows PCs, Amigas, newer Macs, and all manner of devices. I turned my love of ever faster and better and smaller computing devices into a career. Evaluating and measuring their performance is something I still do today.

That first Mac, though, will always be special—will always bring back memories of when computing was magical. I still have it in my basement. The originally beige case is now a rather strange yellow. I think I need to go and see if it still turns on. I’d like to see that happy Mac face again…


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