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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 — 1 more awaiting moderation

  • I used Fetch to put my website online.
    After the upgrade to ‘MacOs 10.15 Catalina’ it doesn’t work anymore…

    Bruno Van Mieghem October 12, 2019
  • The current version of Fetch, 5.7.7, is not compatible with macOS 10.15 Catalina.

    I am working on Fetch 5.8, a Catalina-compatible 64-bit version. You can join the beta test list for Fetch 5.8 by going to:

    https://mailchi.mp/d007f56b91b3/fetch64beta

    You will receive an email with a link for downloading the latest beta (5.8b9), and you’ll receive future emails whenever there’s a new beta release. The current beta release is missing some features but should be usable for most people, and I’m working on fixing the bugs that beta testers are reporting.

    Jim Matthews October 12, 2019
  • Thanks Jim for Fetch. I too must face the end of 32 bit OS environments and target my applications for a 64 bit OS space. Have used Fetch for years and prefer to continue to do so. Best Wishes and fingers crossed for 5.8.x

    E.

    Eric October 12, 2019
  • Hi Jim, thanks for this post. Good to read Fetch’s amazing backstory.

    I began using Fetch in ancient days of yore — around 1994 as I recall. I even bought a license (imagine!).

    Picture my horror — when, after ‘upgrading’ from macOS 10.14.6 to Catalina 10.15 a few days ago — my beloved Fetch doggie would no longer run and play.

    I signed up for the 64-bit beta test and will gladly offer anything that might be helpful in its deployment. Thanks again. Kudos to you and the Fetch team. Fetch is easily the best FTP client I’ve ever used. It runs circles around everything else I’ve ever tried.

    Andy – Art101 October 12, 2019
  • I have been using Fetch on Macs since about 1993 and there’s just no other FTP client I feel right about using.

    Thanks for keeping this alive. :D

    Bill Ray October 13, 2019
  • I’ve used Fetch for at least 18 years and I’m thrilled to read that there will be a possibility for a 64 bit version. I’d love to sign up for beta testing. Thanks indeed!

    Espen Gangvik October 13, 2019
  • I’ve been using Fetch for going on 20 years. I use it daily and have no plans to even consider an alternative. It’s perfection and I love it. :)

    alison October 15, 2019
  • I don’t know what to do without Fetch, I have been using it for 20 years. I am not upgrading to Mac 10.15 until you do!

    Jim October 16, 2019
  • Fetch no longer works with macOS Catalina version 10.15 – Will this be sorted anytime soon with a new software release?

    Kammy Beattie October 17, 2019
  • New Features? Why [when] it does what it does, and does it well…

    Patrick Smit October 20, 2019
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