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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:

Comments

  • I’ve been using Fetch since 1992…several times a day…literally. Some days it seems like an hourly activity. I have 6 remote servers that process astronomical applications and data and a couple of servers for departmental purposes. I move files from one system to another and send upgrades to the software I write regularly. None of the other alternatives come close to the simplicity and power offered by Fetch. I’ve tried them and deleted them.

    I can’t imagine what my world would be like without Fetch! It has been the reliable constant in my computing world. It is the one reason that upgrading to Catalina won’t happen unless Fetch can be used. Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to breathe new life into it and to carry on the outstanding tradition.

    Don Carona September 18, 2019
  • Good to see our old friend Fetch is still around and kicking. I too worried about the end of 32 bit app support. I have been with you since version 3. I have always liked the Fetch transcript feature. Thanks for building such an enduring beloved app.

    JM September 21, 2019
  • I’ve used Fetch from the start, i’ll keep using fetch as long as it still does the job. Thanks for creating this app, it played and continues to play an important part of my online existence :-p

    Loki Eliot September 24, 2019
  • I have always loved Fetch and the only major alternative, Filezilla, is quirky, complex and ugly.

    So I really look forward to using Fetch 5.8.

    Alessandro Cintoli September 24, 2019
  • I am so happy to hear that Fetch will soon support macOS Catalina. I was seriously considering staying on macOS Mojave so that I could continue to use Fetch. I have used it since 2007, and while I have tried many alternatives (Cyberduck, Filezilla, etc), none of them are as intuitive and minimalist as Fetch. And dare I say it, Fetch is even kind of fun to use. I love the little bark you get when a file transfer completes.

    I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but I’d even pay for an upgrade for Catalina support. I last purchased an upgrade in 2013, so I figure I’m due for another upgrade soon. I agree with everyone here, it’s like a good old friend that you just don’t want to have to get rid of. I was really afraid that Fetch was dead since it hadn’t been updated in some time, and I’m very happy to hear it is still being updated. Thanks so much for this great program.

    Chris Webb September 27, 2019
  • I have loved and relied on Fetch since the very early days. And used it again today. Simplicity and elegance.
    Thanks so much for the “30 years of Fetch” article. I am so relieved and pleased that you will continue to a 64 bit version (and perhaps beyond?) I look forward to it.

    Jon Child September 28, 2019
  • Like many of those commenting, I have been using Fetch since the 90’s. Very pleased to see you are trying to keep it alive with 5.8! I should add I for one would be more than happy to pay an upgrade fee in order to be able to keep using Fetch with Catalina and beyond. Thanks for a fantastic product!

    Kirk October 4, 2019
  • I absolutely love Fetch and have been using it for at least 20 years. If forced at knifepoint I will find an alternative, but until then I am still using 5.7 and hoping to see 5.8.

    Thanks for making such a rock-solid and dependable tool, Jim.

    David Thomson October 6, 2019
  • Really happy that you’ve found a path forward for Fetch. Thank you! Looking forward to saying “good doggy!” for at least a few more years.

    Steve Clay October 7, 2019
  • Was looking into Apps I needed to upgrade for Catalina and really just expected to pay for a new version of Fetch. Glad to see theres a 64-bit version but it may be just that you haven’t released enough versions to keep the sales up. I am sure EVERYONE using Fetch would pay for an upgrade.

    Thank you for keeping things alive. Sorry to see it come to pass.

    Shawn October 7, 2019
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