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Dec 09

Open Watcom

Open Watcom logoHands up who remembers Doom? Good. Remember the splash it made when it came out – the most realistic 3D of its day, high performance even right down to 286s, Doom became, for several years, the de facto standard of what a PC was – if it could run Doom, it was a PC.

Few end users noticed the “DOS extender” screen at the beginning of Doom, however. But those in the industry did, and other games companies began to take note – behind the scenes at iD software, they were using a pretty nifty set of development tools. That tool set was Open Watcom.

With the rise of Microsoft’s tool chain, and particularly the Visual Studio franchise, things began to get difficult for the Watcom line. With Borland resurgent with Delphi on the other, there was little business left for Watcom’s avowedly more technical offering. And so Sybase released the compiler as Open Source, and it’s been steadily improving ever since.

One of the joys of Watcom – especially for the novice programmer – is that there is complete help for C and C++ built in on right mouse. And it’s written with easy to understand names – the arguments for strstr (find a string within a string) are “haystack” and “needle”, rather than the more usually cryptic “s” and “t”. (I presume similar documentation is there for FORTRAN, but as I don’t program in the language, I haven’t tested this out).

Quite a few example programs are included to show how it’s done, and the Watcom suite can run on either Windows or OS/2 (and partially on Linux) and target Windows, OS/2, Netware or Linux (even 16-bit Windows and Win32S are still supported, should you need them.)

As anyone who has tried it will tell you, modern C and C++ programming is not for the faint of heart, and while the Open Watcom tools provide a minimum comfort level, it’s not as straightforward as programming in Visual Studio might be. Watcom, however, is designed around the idea of leaving you alone to get on with things, and then producing highly optimised executables from your source code at the end of it. And as a professional programmer, I have to say that that’s the kind of thinking I can get on board with.

And for those who aren’t professional programmers, FORTRAN is a programming language that originated in the 1960s and is much prised for its speed. C and C++ are the building blocks of many modern systems, and are the languages used to write most operating systems today.

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