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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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