The world of technology often feels like an endless parade of incredibly new ideas, architectures, languages, and devices. It also sometimes happens that a novelty stays a little too long. Maybe a gadget just won’t wear out. Perhaps the disruptive replacement will never show up. Sometimes the great replacement turns out not to be as good as the old standby.
Let’s celebrate those artifacts of the computer industry that have been tirelessly delivering, day after day, year after year, some of them for decades. Sure, they might not have flashy conferences named after them or make their big debut in an overrated IPO, but they do what they’re supposed to do.
Here’s a look at some of the best old tech that never dies. Ideas and things – chips, programs, languages - that somehow missed the signal to leave the stage. Oh, we may not notice them much anymore. Sometimes we even forget they are there. But this old technology continues to work, smoothly and unremarkably. Consider it a tribute to the ideal of sound engineering and perhaps a reminder that good technology doesn’t necessarily need to be replaced every few years.
The Z80 chip
The Z80 processor chip began in 1974 as an offshoot of the highly successful Intel 8080. It was a competing chip that offered additional registers and more commands, but was largely binary compatible with the 8080. Developers could run their old code 8080 or modify it with the additional features to be a bit faster.
While Intel continued to create bigger, better, and incredibly faster x86 chips, Zilog’s Z80 continued to thrive in less visible niches like microcontrollers. Today, manufacturers who wish to add a stable microprocessor with a complete and rich collection of libraries can choose from a number of options both from Zilog and from second and third sources. And for those who want to build on tradition, some manufacturers like Toshiba have slowly expanded the line by adding wider buses and bigger registers.
Anyone who wants to play old video games can turn to a variety of open source emulators that allow us to run the original code on modern machines. There are solid implementations of popular platforms like Super Nintendo, but you can also find more obscure frameworks like the Commodore Amiga. Some developers have even found a way to run the code in popular arcade game ROMs. Sure, new games render their heroes in first-person perspective in a way that lets you feel every sweaty pore, but there’s something timelessly satisfying about winning an ASCII-rendered game on a terminal screen.
A surprising number of software programs that were written for the original Windows are still going strong. One such program is PuTTY, used to establish an SSH connection. I regularly use PuTTY to connect to cloud machines. It can even still run the original SUPDUP connection protocol that dates back to the 70s and 80s. A small group of volunteers maintains the original code, which was originally released in 1999. The easiest way to use PuTTY is to download a exe.
Maybe it’s not quite right to call FreeDOS old technology. Why, just this year, someone added a new version of Edlin, the classic online file editing program. And that’s not all: a number of new and revised versions of old command-line code are now part of FreeDOS. But ongoing development doesn’t change the fact that the project is all about DOS keep-alive, the command line, and the programs that run on it. If you have old DOS software that you want to continue using, FreeDOS is one of the easiest ways to do so. Take a trip back in time and enjoy the fast and responsive world of DOS. Here you can be sure that your cursor will never turn into an unresponsive spinning ball. A slider will be a slider, as it should be.
After Bell Labs built Unix, a number of clones began to appear. When AT&T attempted to exert control over the intellectual property, a group of clever programmers wrote their own versions of common command line utilities and released them under the now ubiquitous Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license.
Today, this code is often found in the Linux world in Red Hat or Ubuntu distributions. A solid kernel still lives on as BSD and follows many conventions that were first established at Berkeley. Builds like OpenBSD, FreeBSD, and NetBSD still run fast, smooth, and lightweight.
IBM PC Keyboards
IBM’s first personal computer was equipped with a Model M keyboard which remains one of the most popular options for communicating with a computer. When IBM stopped making this style of keyboard in 1996, a few true believers took the tooling and created Unicomp, which specialized in classic PC keyboards. Now you can get brand new versions of the keyboards you love, but with more modern electronics that speak to newer PCs. Newer mechanical keyboards have their advantages, and they come in varieties with different levels of clickiness, but there’s still nothing quite as solid and efficient as the original Model M.
This software first arrived in 1984 and since then it has been helping scientists and engineers to multiply matrices. MATLAB has improved tremendously over the years and now supports object-oriented programming and GUIs. But at its core, MATLAB is still a programming platform for building and analyzing large matrices.
You might think that rotary tape players went out of style after the 1960s, as did the skinny ties and miniskirts worn by office workers at that time. Although the movement of magnetic tape is not the same percentage of the market as before, some people still love the technology. It’s easy to ship or store, and it’s much more stable than Flash chips. Nor is it entirely accurate to say that today’s drives are the same old technology: after all, tape manufacturers have incorporated many of the same innovations that hard drive manufacturers use to generate their mind-boggling densities. . A new format, LTO-8 released in 2017, is said to store 12 terabytes on tape. Another from IBM, the 3592 Jaguar, can hold 10 terabytes. Not bad compared to old floppy disks.
Long before Twitter and SMS, doctors, stockbrokers, and anyone who needed to be reachable relied on a paging system that could broadcast just a few digits. Newer options like WhatsApp work over cell phone networks or the Internet. They may offer multimedia brilliance and the ability to include a photo or emoji, but they don’t offer the same reliability.
That’s why doctors, nurses and paramedics continue to use pagers for essential communications. One of the largest paging systems in the country says it still handles 100 million messages every month. The pager companies haven’t stood still, either. Newer versions offer HIPAA encryption and protections, and some even allow two-way communication. But at its core is the same basic, reliable gadget that debuted in the 1970s.
Oracle released the first commercial SQL database in 1979. Microsoft released its SQL database in the 1980s. PostgreSQL and MySQL followed in the 1990s. Other database models have since appeared, but the most programmers still write SQL queries. That’s why the business plan of companies like Google, Amazon, Neon, and PlanetScale, to name a few, is to repackage a classic SQL database as a service.
To be fair, some cloud database platforms offer significant changes, like separating logic from the storage layer to speed up certain types of queries and support massively scalable storage. But from a programmer’s perspective, an SQL database in the cloud is no different than the same old interface they’ve been using for years. Developers may not like SQL, but we know and understand it, and we keep coming back to it.
The ARM architecture was one of the core chips that emerged during the RISC revolution of the 1980s. Today, nearly 40 years later, ARM cores can be found everywhere. They’re in embedded machines like the Raspberry Pi devices that started appearing in 2012. They’re also in high-end Apple MacBook Pros, albeit in a very different form. Whatever form it takes, ARM’s simple architecture has proven to be remarkably nimble. It is used to build some of the most efficient chips with the best ratio of computing power produced to electrical power consumed.
There is perhaps no better example of an old standby computer than the flagship computer of the company that built and led the computer industry in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. IBM built its first mainframe in 1952, about 70 years ago. It’s entirely possible that some of that same code – originally created using punched cards – still works today in some form. If you’ve ever wondered why COBOL developers are still in demand, blame the IBM mainframe. Many companies still use the same reliable logic stack that does not wear out.
The mainframe’s operating system and languages have been improved and augmented over the years, but most code principles have not changed. There’s a reason IBM customers, like the big banks, keep pushing. Perhaps they are laughing quietly as fintech companies come and go, bragging as they do about their modern software and languages.
There really is something about old technology that never dies.
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