programming in the
twenty-first century

It's not about technology for its own sake. It's about being able to implement your ideas.

It Made Sense in 1978

Whenever I see this list of memory cell sizes, it strikes me as antiquated:

BYTE = 8 bits
WORD = 16 bits
LONG = 32 bits

Those names were standard for both the Intel x86 and Motorola 68000 families of processors, and it's easy to see where they came from. "Word" isn't synonymous with a 16-bit value; it refers to the fundamental data size that a computer architecture is built to operate upon. On a 16-bit CPU like the 8086, a word is naturally 16-bits.

Now it's 2010, and it's silly to think of a 16-bit value as a basic enough unit of data to get to the designation "word." "Long" is similarly out of place, as 32-bit microprocessors have been around for over 25 years, and yet the standard memory cell size is still labeled in a way that makes it sound abnormally large.

The PowerPC folks got this right back in the early 1990s with this nomenclature:

BYTE = 8 bits
HALFWORD = 16 bits
WORD = 32 bits

That made sense in 1991, and it's still rational today. (64-bit is now common, but the jump isn't nearly as critical as it was the last time memory cell size doubled. The PowerPC name for "64-bits" is "doubleword.")

Occasionally you need to reevaluate your assumptions and not just cling to something because it's always been that way.

permalink March 4, 2010



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I'm James Hague, a recovering programmer who has been designing video games since the 1980s. Programming Without Being Obsessed With Programming and Organizational Skills Beat Algorithmic Wizardry are good starting points. For the older stuff, try the 2012 Retrospective.

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