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April 5th, 2013:

Why I Like Old Software

I still use Office 2000. I still use Visio 2000. I still use InDesign 2.0. I still use VMWare Workstation 5. Hell, I still use Windows XP. Am I lazy? Am I cheap? Am I nuts? No, no, and hell no. Every piece of software I use is the result of a calculated decision and a certain amount of research. I am by no means averse to paying for software, and I do so regularly. But I don’t always upgrade, especially if the upgrades cost money and/or deliver 80% of their value to the vendor. By that I mean software designed to win what I call “pip wars” (feature-comparison charts on review sites) or place new restrictions on installation and use ostensibly to limit piracy. (Mostly what anti-piracy features do is massage titanic corporate egos.) There are loads of people who will stand there drooling in wait of the next major release, money in hand, never suspecting that the largest single reason for the upgrade is to keep the revenue stream flowing.

The longer I use my Old, Old, Software, the better I like it. Here are a few reasons why:

  • It’s already paid for. The longer I use it, the more hours of use I get for my buck.
  • By and large, old software (at least pre-2002 or so) doesn’t activate. The benefits of activation flow entirely to the vendor, at least in circumstances where the benefits are not entirely imaginary. Most of the time, they are. Activation delivers nothing but annoyance and occasionally downtime to the end user–and in doing so, trains many otherwise honest users to be pirates.
  • Old software is smaller and faster on new machines. Bloat is real, even if it’s not the result of fighting pip wars somewhere. Office 2000 seems almost supersonic on my quadcore, doubly so on my quadcore from my new SSD.
  • Old software respects the skills I’ve developed over the years. Most of the changes I’ve seen across major upgrades are gratuitous, and don’t add any value over the old versions. UI changes in particular had better deliver spectacular new value, because while I learn them they slow me way down.
  • Tutorial books on old software can be had for almost nothing. I routinely buy books on early-mid 2000’s software for $5 or so…books that had original cover prices in the $40-$50 range. Many of these books are unused remainder copies that are essentially new.
  • The argument I hear when I make this point mostly cook down to, Isn’t it eventually obsolete? That depends on what “obsolete” means. Backward compatibility is usually retained, because people rebel when it isn’t. (Windows 8? Are those peasants carrying registered torches and pitchforks?) The only significant thing that Word 2000 doesn’t do is handle docx files. I bought Atlantis to convert any docx files I might need to keep on hand. (Atlantis also creates extremely clean epubs.) Word 2000 is weak on PDF skills, so I bought PDF Xchange Pro to handle that, and as a bonus eliminate any need for the exploit farm we know as Adobe Reader.

I do upgrade software when I see a need. Windows XP eventually replaced Win2K here, even though it activates, because it had certain things I eventually judged useful. I’ve purchased InDesign three times, because I make money laying out books and the new features were useful, but I stopped when Adobe added their uniquely paranoid activation. (Interestingly, I haven’t felt any compelling need to upgrade since V2.0, and I’m interviewing Scribus.) I dumped Dreamweaver when I wanted to move my Web pages to CSS, because Komposer did CSS as well as I needed it to, for free and without activation. It pains me to say it, but with Delphi pricing now up in four figures (and encumbered by activation) I’ve moved all my Pascal programming to Lazarus 1.0.6.

This last issue is important. Open source has changed a great many things. I used to pay for email clients, including Eudora and Poco Mail. Since I discovered Thunderbird, I’ve stayed with Thunderbird. Why? Email is a mature technology. I’m not sure there’s much innovation left to be wrung from it. This is less true of Web browsers, and I now use Chrome most of the time. But man, what’s new in word processing? What? Lemme think for a second… Hang on, it’ll come to me…

This is a key point: The basic mechanisms of computing are mature. There has been time for the slower dev cycles of open source to catch up with commercial software. The action is out on the edges, in speech recognition, automated translation, vertical markets of many kinds, and niche-y mobile apps. We’re still seeing some useful evolution in Web browsers, but there’s damned little in releases of Office past 2000 that I find compelling. Most of the new features are UI tweaks and useless gimmicks.

Old software still has fizz: The best we could want already is!