June 28, 2004

The Legacy of ASCII

The creator of ASCII, Bob Bemer, has died [1]. I didn't even know who he was, until he was dead, but I certainly knew what ASCII was. And is.

The effect of the creation of ASCII is hard to exaggerate. Growing up as a boy with toys in the 70s, there were many new machines with strange ways of doing things. HP calculators, big desktop calculating machines with multilayered neon numbers, hobby kits owned by mad professors, and apple IIs; these all had their quirks. As late as the early 80s, the big supercomputer at my University used 60 bit words, into which 10 characters were packed. Yes, String instructions for modern languages had "pack" and "unpack" in them, an acknowledged compromise, but the Cyber engineers knew better.

ASCII, and the power of 2, changed all that. It took a while, but slowly, everything became multiples of 8 bits, and all text became straight ASCII. EBCDIC became a bad joke and others were used as trivia questions at hacker gatherings (yes, we were all called hackers in those days). RS232 followed, and we found ourselves in a world where any computer could talk to any other. Albeit, slowly, via a 2400 baud cable soldered to 25 pins, or a tape calculated in 3/4 inch stop blocks. But it could be done with a 50 line program (typed from memory) or a blocking conversion routine (written from scratch, or using some learnt-by-heart parameters for a strange program).

Following on from this slow revolution in compatibility, there have been few standards developments as impressive. Here's a stab at a few:

  • The IBM PC
  • IP - being Internet Protocol, not intellectual property
  • email
  • WWW
  • DOC.
  • the mobile or cellular phone
  • C

Yes, DOC files are in there as the ubiquitous poor man's text transmission method. It's impossible to tell people that they don't need to attach a file to an email, the 10 line email as a 100k Word attachment has achieved ubiquity. Maybe it's just some secret popup I haven't found yet "Microsoft believes the email you are about to send is too efficient, do you wish to send a Word Attachment instead?"

Note that which is not in the list: PDF, IM/chat, ISO networking, Windows (Microsoft or X), Google, PDAs, smartcards, XML, ... YMMV, but these haven't really made it to the level of pervasiveness that the above list expresses. Comments please, but be prepared to argue your case!

[1] Key computer coding creator dies

Posted by iang at June 28, 2004 03:56 PM | TrackBack

Pervasive is as pervasive does and does until your name as a creator vanishes and only the concept or its functions remain. Smudged into a picture drawn in sand the tide of new invention carries back out to make room for the new painters of sand. There is an art here that carries all the importance of the Impressionist. Representing human ideas in machine readable formats so they are readable at some derived level by other human beings or at least providing some useful purpose. Instead of brushes or canvas these artist created a new medium. Gone and perhaps forgotten, maybe just carried out to sea to allow the creative process and its raw material the sand to used by another.

Posted by: Jimbo at June 29, 2004 05:51 AM