Despite the race for novelty, some very old technologies, from magnetic tape to mainframes, remain the best. Travel back in time with these tools that are just as effective today.
The world of technology often feels like an endless parade of incredible ideas, architectures, languages, and equipment. But it also sometimes happens that a tool that was once new stays in place longer than expected. Maybe because the gadget never goes out of fashion. Perhaps because the decision to replace it will never see the light of day. Or because the tool that does well is less good. So why not pay homage to those artifacts of the computer industry that consistently keep their promises day after day, year after year, and sometimes even decades.
Here’s a look at some of those technologies that refuse to die. Ideas and objects — chips, software, languages — that, for one reason or another, never left the scene. Often we don’t notice them. We even forget that they exist. But these instruments from another era continue to function without making any noise.
The Z80 processor, a derivative of the hugely popular Intel 8080, was introduced in 1974. This competing chip had more registers and instructions, but was mostly binary compatible with the original. Developers could run their 8080 code or modify it to take advantage of additional features and make it a bit faster. While Intel strove to build larger, higher performing, and blazingly faster x86 chips, the Zilog Z80 continued to thrive in less visible niches like microcontrollers.
Today, electronics manufacturers who want to integrate a stable microprocessor with a large number of libraries can choose between several options from Zilog and other vendors. And for those who want to continue the tradition, some manufacturers like Toshiba have gradually expanded their range around the Z80 with larger tires and registers.
Anyone who wants to enjoy old video games can turn to the many open source emulators to run the source code on new machines. There are solid implementations of popular platforms such as the Super Nintendo, but there are also more obscure platforms such as those for the Commodore Amiga. Developers have even found a way to run code in the ROM of some arcade games. Of course, the latest games give their characters such a realistic look that you can see the smallest pores of their skin. However, there is something eternal and joyful about winning a game with ASCII graphics, like on the screen of an old terminal!
A surprising amount of software written for the first version of Windows continues to work. PuTTY, used to establish an SSH connection, is one of them. It can even run the SUPDUP connection protocol, which dates back to the 70s and 80s. A small group of volunteers maintain the source code, originally released in 1999. The easiest way to use PuTTY is to download the executable.
It wouldn’t be entirely fair to call FreeDOS an old technology. Indeed, in 2022, a version of the classic Edlin file editing program was released. And that’s not all, revised and fixed versions of old command line codes are now part of FreeDOS.
But continued development doesn’t change the fact that the project is designed to keep DOS, the command line, and the programs running on it alive. If you have old DOS software that you want to keep using, FreeDOS is one of the easiest ways to do so.
After the creation of Unix by Bell LAbs, several clones began to appear. When ATT tried to take control of the operating system’s intellectual property, a group of smart programmers wrote their own versions of the most common utilities and released them under the ubiquitous Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license.
Today, this code is often found in the Linux world, for example in Red Hat or Ubuntu distributions. A trusted kernel still exists under the BSD name, following many of the Berkeley conventions. Builds such as OpenBSD, FreeBSD, and NetBSD still run quickly, smoothly, and easily.
IBM M keyboards for PC
The first IBM personal computer came with the Model M keyboard, which remains one of the most popular ways to communicate with a computer. When Big Blue stopped making them in 1996, a few backers grabbed the tools needed to build Unicomp, which specialized in traditional PC keyboards.
Today you can find all the versions of mechanical keyboards you need, but with more modern electronic components adapted to modern PCs. They have their advantages, but nothing is stronger and more efficient than the original M.
Since its introduction in 1984, this software has been helping scientists and engineers to multiply matrices. Matlab has improved a lot over the years and now supports object-oriented programming and GUIs. But at its core, it remains a software platform for constructing and analyzing large matrices.
You might think that magnetic card readers have gone out of fashion since the 1960s. On the contrary, although they no longer hold the same market share as they used to, some people still appreciate the technology. They are easy to transport and store and are much more stable than flash chips.
It’s also not entirely correct to say that readers are still using the same old technology. Tape manufacturers have adopted many of the innovations used by hard drive manufacturers to achieve tremendous density. The LTO-9 format, released in 2017, allows you to store 12 terabytes on a cartridge. While IBM makes LTO drive heads, Fujifilm and Sony make cartridges. Another format from IBM, the 3592 Jaguar, can store up to 10 terabytes.
Long before Twitter and text messaging, doctors, stockbrokers, and anyone else who needed to be contacted used pagers that could send multiple numbers. Modern solutions such as WhatsApp work through the mobile network or the Internet. Of course, they allow you to include a photo or a smiley face, but they are not at all as reliable. That’s why doctors, nurses, and paramedics continue to use pagers for mission-critical communications. One of the largest paging systems in the US claims to handle 100 million messages per month.
Manufacturers of beepers also did not sit idle. Their latest equipment includes encryption and HIPAA security. Some even allow two-way communication.
Oracle released the first commercial SQL database in 1979. Microsoft released their own database in the 1980s, PostgreSQL and MySQL followed in the 1990s. That’s why the business plans of companies like Google, Amazon, Neon and PlanetScale – to name but a few – are to reformat a classic SQL database into a service.
To be fair, some cloud database platforms make significant changes, such as separating the logical tier from the storage tier, to speed up certain types of queries and support scalable storage. But from a programmer’s perspective, a SQL database in the cloud is no different than the good old interface they’ve been using for years.
ARM is one of the core architectures for processors, born from the RISC revolution in the 1980s. Today, almost 40 years later, ARM cores can be found almost everywhere: in embedded machines, as well as in Raspberry machines that appeared in 2012. Apple Mac, albeit in a very different form. The Cupertino company licensed the ARM instruction sets, not the chip design, to develop its own processors.
The simple ARM architecture proved remarkably flexible. It is used to develop some of the most efficient chips with the best ratio between computing power and energy consumption.
IBM Z mainframes
What better example of old technology that lives on than the iconic computer from IBM, the company that founded and spearheaded the computer industry in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It built its first mainframe in 1952, 70 years later! And it is quite possible that some code created then on punched cards still works in one form or another today. If you’ve ever wondered why Cobol developers are always in demand, it’s because of IBM mainframes. Many companies are still using the same indestructible programs.
However, the operating system and languages of the Z systems have improved and enriched themselves over time, even if most of the principles of the code have not changed. It’s no coincidence that IBM customers, such as large banks, continue to use it. Perhaps they are gently poking fun at fintech companies that brag about their state of the art software and languages.