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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:


  • Wondering if you’re going to be Catalina compatible anytime. I have to avoid the upgrade for awhile for 32 bit app reasons, but will go to it eventually. I have used Fetch for many years and still do.

    Das Goravani October 7, 2019
  • Hi,

    You can sign up to beta test Fetch 5.8, the Catalina-compatible 64-bit release, at:


    Jim Matthews
    Fetch Softworks

    Jim Matthews October 8, 2019
  • I don’t know what I would do without Fetch. Have used it since the beginning and I really hope you will continue developing it. Am happy to pay for a new version!!!

    Elaine N October 8, 2019
  • Thanks for updating Fetch. A lot of software companies haven’t released anything.

    I hope you restore the quick jump feature by typing in letters. Typing ‘z’ requires about 10 jumps to get to the end of my file list. The first jump gets me to the ‘i’s, the next to the ‘j’s.

    Jeff October 8, 2019
  • I have been using Fetch as long as there has been a Fetch Nothing else is quite what this is. It is more Mac-like than the Mac itself these days. The need for FTP is diminishing more and more. But those times you need it, it is the best. Thanks for keeping it going.

    GS October 8, 2019
  • Have been using Fetch since the original version and still prefer its clean genuine Mac interface to any of the alternatives. Happy to beta test the 64-bit version and pay my wack when it is released.

    David Leader October 8, 2019
  • Just upgraded to Mac OS Catalina and, ouch, ouch, ouch, no more Fetch. This time Apple meant it and 32-bit apps simply won’t even start. So for the first time in well more than two decades I don’t have Fetch, which I use every day, for all of my work. I feel lost! Will Fetch 5.8 be 64-bit? Will I get used to something else? (FileZilla ain’t it!).

    Conrad Blickenstorfer October 8, 2019
  • Thanks for story Jim. Hands down the best FTP client for MAC OS around. All others are garbage.

    I just signed up to 5.8 beta because Apple just told me that 5.7 won’t work if I upgrade to Catalina. So I’m hoping 5.8 will work with Catalina.

    Keep up the good work. You guys are the best!

    Stef October 8, 2019
  • I’m translating Fetch into French since 2.1b3 (1992).
    And ready to continue for 5.8 or newer.

    Jean-Pierre Kuypers October 10, 2019
  • It’s a great FTP tool, I’ve been using it for years.
    Needs an update though now that OS X 10.15 is out 🙁
    Keep up the good work

    FuriousGreg October 11, 2019
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