The tech world often seems like an endless parade of amazingly new ideas, architectures, languages, and devices. It also sometimes happens that a once-new thing sticks around a bit too long. Perhaps a gadget simply won’t wear out. Maybe the disruptive replacement never shows up. Occasionally, the great replacement turns out to be not quite as good as the old standby.
Let’s celebrate these artifacts of the computer industry that steadfastly deliver—day in and day out, 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 overhyped 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 cue to leave the stage. Oh, we might not notice them much anymore. Sometimes we even forget they’re there. But this old tech keeps running on, smooth and unremarkable. Consider it a tribute to the ideal of sound engineering, and possibly 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 wildly successful Intel 8080. It was a competing chip that offered extra registers and more commands but was largely binary compatible with the 8080. Developers could run their old 8080 code or tweak it with the extra features to be a bit faster.
While Intel moved on to create bigger, better, and insanely faster x86 chips, Zilog’s Z80 continued to thrive in less visible niches like microcontrollers. Today, manufacturers who want to add a stable microprocessor with a deep, rich collection of libraries can choose between a number of options both from Zilog and from second and third sources. And for those who want to build on the tradition, some manufacturers like Toshiba have slowly expanded the line by adding wider buses and fatter registers.
Anyone who wants to play old video games can turn to a variety of open source emulators that let us 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 the ROMs in popular arcade games. Sure, the newer games render their first-person heroes in a way that lets you feel every sweaty pore, but there’s something timelessly satisfying about winning a game rendered in ASCII on a terminal screen.
A surprising large number of software programs that were written for the original Windows continue to sail on. One such program is PuTTY, used to set up an SSH connection. I routinely use PuTTY to log in to cloud machines. It can even still initiate the original SUPDUP login protocol that dates from the ’70s and ’80s. A small group of volunteers maintains the original code, which was initially released in 1999. The simplest way to use PuTTY is to download an exe.
Maybe it’s not exactly fair to call FreeDOS old tech. Why, just this year someone added a new version of Edlin, the classic line-based 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 the ongoing development doesn’t change the fact that the project is devoted to keep-alive DOS, the command line, and programs that run on it. If you’ve got some old DOS software that you want to keep using, FreeDOS is one of the simplest ways to do it. Take a trip back in time and enjoy the fast, responsive world of DOS. Here, you can be sure your cursor will never turn into a spinning, unresponsive ball. A cursor will be a cursor, as it should be.
After Bell Labs built Unix, a number of clones started appearing. When AT&T tried to exert control over the intellectual property, a clever band of programmers wrote their own versions of the common command-line utilities and released them under the now ubiquitous Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license.
Today, this code is often found throughout the Linux world in distributions by Red Hat or Ubuntu. A solid core still lives under the name of BSD, and holds to many of the conventions that were first established at Berkeley. Versions like OpenBSD, FreeBSD, and NetBSD still run fast, smooth, and light.
IBM PC keyboards
IBM’s first personal computer came with a Model M keyboard that remains one of the most loved options for communicating with a computer. When IBM stopped making that style of keyboard in 1996, a few true believers took the tooling and set up Unicomp, specializing 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 as solid and efficient as the original Model M.
This software first arrived in 1984, and it’s helped scientists and engineers multiply matrices ever since. MATLAB has improved greatly over the years, and now supports object-oriented programming and graphical interfaces. But at its core, MATLAB is still a programming platform for building and analyzing large matrices.
You might think that spinning tape drives went out of fashion after the 1960s, just like the skinny ties and miniskirts worn by office workers in that day. While moving magnetic tape doesn’t command the same percentage of the marketplace that it once did, some people still love the technology. It’s easy to ship or store, and it’s much more stable than Flash chips. It’s also not quite accurate to say that the current drives are the same old technology: After all, tape companies have incorporated many of the same innovations that hard disk manufacturers use to generate their stunning densities. One new format, the LTO-8 released in 2017, is said to store 12 terabytes on a tape. Another from IBM, the 3592 Jaguar, can hold 10 terabytes. That’s not bad compared to the old floppy disks.
Long before Twitter and SMS, doctors, stockbrokers, and everyone else who needed to be reachable relied on a radio paging system capable of broadcasting just a few digits. Newer options like WhatsApp run over cell phone networks or the regular internet. They may offer multimedia gloss and the ability to include a photo or an emoji, but they don’t deliver the same reliability.
That’s why doctors, nurses, and EMTs continue to use pagers for essential communication. One of the nation’s largest paging systems claims it’s still processing 100 million messages each month. Pager companies haven’t sat still, either. Newer versions offer encryption and HIPAA protections, and some even allow two-way communication. But at the core is the same basic, reliable gadget that debuted in the 1970s.
Oracle released the first commercial SQL database in 1979. Microsoft launched its SQL database in the 1980s. PostgreSQL and MySQL followed in the 1990s. Other database models have come along since, but most programmers still write SQL queries. That’s why the business plan for companies like Google, Amazon, Neon, and PlanetScale—to name just a few—amounts to repackaging a classic SQL database as a service.
To be fair, some cloud database platforms offer extensive modifications, like separating the logic from the storage layer to speed up certain kinds of queries and support massively scalable storage. But from a programmer’s perspective, an SQL database in the cloud looks no different from the same old interface they’ve been using for years. Developers might not love SQL, but we know it and understand it, and we keep coming back to it.
The ARM architecture was one of the basic chips that emerged during the RISC revolution of the 1980s. Now, almost 40 years later, ARM cores are found pretty much everywhere. They’re in embedded machines like the Raspberry Pi devices that started appearing in 2012. They’re also in the top-of-the-line Apple MacBook Pros, albeit in a very different form. Whatever shape it takes, ARM’s simple architecture has proved to be remarkably agile. It is used to build some of the most efficient chips with the best ratio of computing power produced to electric power consumed.
There may be no greater example of an old standby than the flagship computer from the company that built and led the computer industry through the ’50s, ’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 punch cards—still runs today in some shape or form. If you’ve ever wondered why COBOL developers are still in demand, blame the IBM mainframe. Many companies are still running the same trustworthy stack of logic that doesn’t wear out.
The mainframe’s operating system and languages were improved and augmented over the years, but much of the code principles have not changed. There’s a reason why IBM clients like the top banks continue to carry on. Perhaps they’re laughing quietly to themselves as financial tech firms come and go, bragging as they do about their modern software and languages.
There really is something about old tech that never dies.
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