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Thirty Years of Fetch by Jim Matthews

Thirty years ago today my colleagues in the Computing Services department at Dartmouth College were preparing for the distribution of about 1,000 Macintosh SEs, SE/30s, and Mac IIxs, and they needed to start duplicating the floppy disks of software that would be bundled with those Macs. So that was the day I finished Fetch 1.0, the Mac file transfer program that I had been working on all summer.

Many years later I started marketing Fetch as “the original Mac FTP client,” which is sort of accurate. There were Mac FTP clients before Fetch, starting with ports of the UNIX command line ftp client. The first Mac FTP client I ever saw with a graphical user interface was Amanda Walker’s, included in the InterCon product TCP/Connect. There was also Doug Hornig's HyperCard-based FTP client from Cornell called HyperFTP. But as far as I know there weren’t any other stand-alone FTP clients with a Mac user interface in September, 1989, and there certainly weren’t any that are still maintained today.

Fetch’s longevity has been a continual surprise to me. Most application software has the life expectancy of a field mouse. Of the thousands of other Mac apps on the market on September 1, 1989 I can only think of four (Panorama, Word, Excel and Photoshop) that are still sold today. [UPDATE: There are quite a few others.] Fetch 1.0 was released into a world with leaded gasoline and a Berlin Wall; DVD players and Windows 95 were still in the future. The Fetch icon is a dog with a floppy disc in its mouth; at this point it might as well be a stone tablet.

I developed Fetch to solve a specific problem at Dartmouth: we had a bunch of different kinds of central computers — UNIX, VMS, VM/CMS, DCTS — and no easy way to move files between them and the thousands of Macs on campus. But 1989 also brought Dartmouth’s first full-time connection to the Internet, and soon Fetch was being used more for downloading files from far-flung Internet archives than it was for moving files across campus. When the early 1990s brought the first graphical web browsers, I figured Fetch’s relevance had passed; web browsers could download files too, and do so much more. But people didn’t just want to browse web pages, they also wanted to create them and upload them to web servers. For some reason web browsers never got very good at uploading files, and as the web exploded in popularity that left a big niche for FTP clients like Fetch to fill. It’s a niche that has shrunk in recent years, as more sophisticated forms of Internet publishing have become available, but to my amazement it still exists today.

In 2000, when I used game show winnings to buy the rights to Fetch from Dartmouth, it looked like Fetch’s best days were behind it. But that wasn’t the case, thanks to the efforts and high standards of Ben Artin and Scott McGuire, who joined Fetch Softworks and turned Fetch into a real professional product. Fetch made the jump from Classic MacOS to OS X, and from PowerPC to Intel. It got a professionally designed website and UI artwork. I never really knew how to promote Fetch, but word got around, and today our customer database includes orders from 212 different countries, from Andorra to Zimbabwe.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that after a couple decades the excitement of working on file transfer software began to wane. In 2011 we tried to branch out into iPad apps, which was fun and novel and lost money. So I turned back to Fetch, and started work on a total rewrite: Fetch 6. At that point Fetch had over 20 years of testing and debugging, but the source code also had cruft and compromises that had been bugging me for over 20 years. I imagined a new Fetch that had all the improvements that I’d daydreamed about, and none of the old code that made it so hard to implement new features.

This, of course, is one of the classic blunders in software development. It was exhilarating to be free of the shackles of our legacy code. But with a blank slate and no clear destination or deadline, we spent years without getting anywhere close to having a product that we could actually sell. Meanwhile Fetch 5 stagnated, and customers who needed more than Fetch 5 could offer moved on. Sales declined year after year, and Fetch Softworks went from having 3 full time employees and a couple part-time contractors to being a nights-and-weekends effort for two of us.

That experience wasn’t fun, but there was a silver lining. I resumed doing Fetch tech support, and day after day heard from users who still preferred Fetch to the alternatives. I’d been focused on all the things I wanted to change about Fetch, but they were still using it because they liked it the way it was.

In January, 2018 I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to make Fetch 6 happen. Apple had made it clear that 32-bit apps like Fetch 5.7 weren't long for this world, so it looked like the time had come to lay Fetch to rest for good. But I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye, and it occurred to me that there was a third option, something between finishing Fetch 6 and letting Fetch die: I could port Fetch 5.7’s Carbon user interface to Cocoa and make a 64-bit Fetch 5.8. I wish I’d had that idea 5 or 10 or 15 years earlier, but there you have it.

Fetch 5.8 is now in beta testing; you can sign up to test it here. It currently implements about 90% of Fetch 5.7.7’s features with about 50% of Fetch 5.7.7’s reliability. When I can get those numbers up to 95% and 99%, respectively, I’ll release it as a free upgrade.

Once 5.8 is out I will try to fix bugs and keep it compatible with new OS releases, but I don’t expect to add new features. I think of it being like one of those bands that you’re surprised to see is still touring decades after their last hit. They can still play that song you loved, but you won’t see them on the charts. I don’t expect that Fetch will still be around for its 40th Birthday in 2029. But I’ve been wrong before.

In other news:


  • I already used Macs when Fetch 1.0 came out, but we didn’t have any kind of internet connectivity at the time. So the first time I used Fetch was probably a bit later, in 1991 at the latest. It is true that my need for it has diminished over the years, but I had use for it just a few days ago and was a bit worried when I got the familiar alert warning me that Fetch 5.7.7 is 32-bit only.
    So I was very happy to read this post, and I would like to thank all involved for their efforts to keep Fetch alive.

    Sebastian Hagedorn September 1, 2019
  • It’s like getting the news an old friend you’d lost contact with is still alive and kicking. I first discovered Fetch in 1993, and it was _the_ gateway to Mac resources on the Internet like the InfoMac and UMich archives before that newfangled World Wide Web became the rage. Thanks for the 30 years of work Jim.

    Steve Dagley September 1, 2019
  • Thank you for that great story and your honesty. I need Fetch now and then and was always glad to get an update, no matter how long I didn’t use it. Great also, that you had this perfect idea. :) So, I hope Fetch will be around for another long time. If you get out a version 6, I am on board and happy to pay my share. Keep going!

    W. Piehler September 2, 2019
  • I am happy to know there a beta of Fetch 5.8; I want to keep using Fetch with MacOS.

    Manjit Bedi September 2, 2019
  • So happy to hear you’ll be releasing 5.8 as a 64-bit app. I’ve been using it for close to 20 years and I’ve yet to find an FTP client that I like better.

    Jeff September 3, 2019
  • I remember wandering around college campus with my utility floppy disks so I could have all my essentials no matter what computer lab I was in. Fetch was always with me. And I very clearly remember having the chicken/egg problem of “how do I download Fetch without Fetch?” at least once.

    Cliff September 3, 2019
  • Fetch was a pivotal tool for me when I started building web sites in 1996 on my Quadra.

    Dylan September 3, 2019
  • I’ve been a long time user of Fetch (since 1994, I think?). So happy to hear you are keeping the project alive.

    But I’m also VERY disappointed that you failed to make a Mean Girls reference in this post.

    Jason Moore September 3, 2019
  • I’ve used Fetch for upwards of 15 years, occasionally checking out alternatives and never finding anything quite as simple and intuitive as Fetch. And that’s just it – I believe you’ve succeeded so long because it solves a task at its most basic form, and leaves out the cruft.

    Keith September 3, 2019
  • Only good memories with Fetch. Amazing to see it getting love through all those years. I hope it lasts at least as long as FTP itself, both seem synonymous in my mind.

    dmitrizzle September 3, 2019
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