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Farewell Dr. Dobb's

Summary: Another important publication bites the dust.

In 1969 the nation was shocked when hundreds of thousands of gaily-dressed, mud-splattered hippies spent three days at Max Yasgur's farm getting stoned, making love and listening to music. This was just over a year after Martin Luther King's assassination led to different kinds of gatherings, resulting in looting, burned cities and many injured people.

People born after those days would find it hard to understand the tenor of the times. The Vietnam War was raging. Every week body counts were announced on the radio; hundreds of American servicemen were lost, weekly. Much of the country supported the war effort; others, especially young people, opposed it, bitterly dividing families, mine among them. Protests were common, and those were often massive. Most of DC was paralyzed by an anti-war protest in 1971.

Bell bottoms, long hair, and beads adorned many young folk. Smaller gatherings, like coffee shops (not at all like today's Starbucks) brought dozens to a room for folk music and poetry readings. "People power" was a rallying cry for some; others predicted communism. The air was charged with politics, from the Black Panthers to informal discussion groups. Oceans of naivety washed over the under-30 set, but sometimes I wish for any level of engagement for youngsters today. I'm pretty sure my daughter and her circle of friends have never read a newspaper, on-line or otherwise.

The War ended in 1975, and with its demise the hippie era started to fade. But a new technology arose about the same time, and some of those "freaks" (as we called ourselves) found another passion: microprocessors.

The PC was still years away, but by the mid-70s a few companies made computer kits available based on the 8080 and other processors. The Altair 8800 really launched the notion of a personal computer in 1975; it was truly a "people's computer," a machine that even ordinary people could own. Competitors appeared overnight. Within a year many commercial offerings were available. Some people designed their own machines. A market for board kits became quite vibrant.

The People Power that vitiated protests morphed into a variety of computer groups. Member were mostly male, mostly very hirsute, and never sported ties. These groups sometimes had presentations, but always featured mobs gathered around someone's latest machine. Code and schematics were freely, at times too freely, traded.

That year saw the formation of what became the People's Computer Company, a name drawn from the collectivist notions of so many of that era. Soon the outfit produced a publication called Dr. Dobb's Journal of Tiny Basic Calisthenics and Orthodontia: Running Light Without Overbyte. It was a great and absurd name that reflected how much fun everyone was having. The "Tiny Basic" clause reflected the time's problem: hardware abounded but applications were scarce. Dr. Dobb's original mission was to publish the source code of a very small Basic interpreter that could run on these new machines. It was, of course, written in assembly language so readers became quite skilled in the mysterious arts of computing. Another magazine, Byte, started at around the same time. It, too, had deeply technical articles.

I well remember Small C, written by James Hendrix (one wonders if Jimi was reincarnated as a strummer of bits), which Dr. Dobb's published in the early 80s. Small C was written in Small C and was tiny indeed, at a few thousand lines of code. Astonishingly, it is still available here: http://www.oxaero.com/Jim.asp.

Dr. Dobb's experienced several name changes over the decades; unlike Byte it never lost its deep technical focus. Byte went through various tribulations and was reborn as a web-only publication, only to finally die in 2013.

Dr. Dobb's, like its readers, grew up and lost the People Power slant. Like so many publications it succumbed to the Internet and went to an on-line only version a few years ago.

The magazine tended to reflect the times, which means that, to me at least, it became less interesting as the articles increasingly covered web and IT issues. Some embedded content remained, and software process was never neglected, so my Monday reading always included at least a look at Dr. Dobb's headlines.

In 2012 Embedded Systems Design went out of print. Happily, the magazine lives on here in its on-line incarnation. Alas, it's with more than a little sadness that I have to bid adieu to Dr. Dobb's, which will go into stasis in January. The web site will remain but no content will be added.

Perhaps Dr. Dobb's creation and demise merely reflects the cycle of life. Hippies became parents and engaged society in a less confrontational, more practical manner. Then as grandparents, genetically irrelevant, they became wise mentors to younger generations. Finally, all must die, but we remember them - and Dr. Dobb's - fondly.

I hope the various writers who contributed so much to Dr. Dobb's don't lose their voices, and continue to publish useful technical articles. Surely, though, the many readers of that magazine will miss it.

Published December 17, 2014