A Tribute to Old Software Vendors
Recently the public was enlightened to the news that the U.S. Military was still using 8-inch floppy discs and 40-year old software to coordinate nuclear operations. However surprising this is to hear, old “legacy” software still turns the cogwheels of many processes in daily life – only it tends to be confined to those you won’t see often. Legacy systems aren’t just fossils of a bygone era, they are living breathing beasts who survived several mass extinction events beyond all odds. They lay testament to the days when industry Goliaths cleaned up junior tech companies like Lego pieces and Silicon Valley Janitors became millionaires. Also when you could get away with photos like this:
Hunting Dinosaurs in the Wild
To paint the picture of how fast software moves compared to everything else in the world if we were to scale the history of software companies to complex life on earth, IBM is a mound of Cambrian bacteria, 90s software is walking with the Dinosaurs, and Facebook predates humans.
In fact, the response from my colleagues whenever we stumble upon dinosaur software still in use is not dissimilar to David Attenborough closing in on a rare animal:
“Ooh, wooow…a diskette?…the website even says to fax them… fascinating”
Here’s how else you can spot them:
Spot them by name: If you’re looking to track down old software, the company or product name gives a very good hint as to the date of creation. To demonstrate, you can make your own pre-2000 software company name using this formula:
Pick an aspirational word: Success, Genie, Impact, Wizard AND Combine with your choice of Micro, Tech, Data, Systems etc.*
*Not all accidental namesakes are bad software, after all, they survived the millennium bug.
This will give you a good place to dig.
Spot them by font: A geologist can figure out the age of a rock just by its relative surrounds, maybe the rock is intruded by volcanics, or maybe the rock is imprinted with the fossil record of a previously dated mass extinction event.
The extinction event of the software world is the Courier New 12 font, created by IBM in 1955:
A symbol of bureaucratic anonymity and software company help guides alike, even the U.S. State Department stopped using it in 2004.
If your software help guide contains this font, it’s definitely older than Facebook and potentially as old as the Cambrian.
Spot them by website: Sometimes a geologist can’t rely on an accurate relative date so turns to empirical methods like isotope dating methods.
The isotope dating of the software world is the date of creation on the website. When you’re not planning to sell more of anything what’s the point in updating the website.
So how does old software beat extinction without evolving?
The obvious and remarkable answer is that just like my father’s Toshiba T1000 laptop: it still works. But here’s a few other reasons why unsupported legacy software still exists.
Ungrounded application of economic principles: A common logic attitude is that because legacy software has already been paid for, that extending its life is reducing the ‘Price Per Use’, effectively stretching the dollar.
This is true if there is no opportunity cost and therefore assumes new technology offers no economic upside potential to be gained in efficiency or function.
From a profit & loss perspective it also ignores that the legacy software book value is almost certainly already written down to $0 and usually costs money to maintain.
Scars from previous technology rollouts: We’re biologically wired to avoid things that cause us pain.
Rolling out commercial grade software 20 years ago was unavoidably painful, unnecessarily complex and inherently expensive. For some these memories run deeper than others.
Thanks to market forces, (most) vendors have now evolved to a shared risk model, taking nothing upfront and only charging for what’s used, forcing innovation and accountability.
If it’s not broken don’t fix it mentality: This statement is the handbrake on the progress of civilisation. Applied wrongly as it usually is, this logic suggests the below 1915 Model T Ford isn’t broken. It has four wheels and an engine, no different to a Lexus.
Progress is about thriving, not surviving.
The government still uses it: Governments are notoriously slow at progressing technology (see below picture of U.S. Navy catering software). This is an entire thesis itself, however, the appetite of government departments to seek fast to implement software is ever increasing, so there are promising signs.
To those who survived the millennium bug, we salute you…
There’s something humbling about encountering old technology. It’s one part a protest to the throwaway nature of tech and on the other a fascinating glimpse into the frustrations of past technology. Either way, the fact that we can pause to reflect on the technology of 20 years ago as if it were prehistoric is validation of the speed of human progress.