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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!


  1. Tom R. says:

    Amen Jeff! You are preaching to the choir!

    I am writing this on a machine running Windows 2000 because I don’t like activation either. Oh, there is one laptop and my late wife’s desktop with XP, but the rest of the machines are Linux. The only real problem I have with staying on W2k is that more and more things won’t update when needed or install if I want them too. If more commercial programs that I wanted were released for Linux I would buy them without hesitation. I would pay DOUBLE for a copy of the Tax Prep software I use written for Linux.

    I am thinking of either buying an OEM copy of Windows 7 or having a machine built with it before Microsoft realizes that the only way they are going to make people buy Windows 8 is to make it the only thing available. I am also thinking about stocking up on some non UEFI motherboards since they seem to be getting less and less available.

  2. I wonder if one reason Microsoft Office keeps fiddling with its user interface is to preserve jobs for secretaries. Remember, secretaries were invented along with typewriters and telephones. (Before then, secretarial work was done by junior managerial staff.) We’ve almost reclaimed both telephony and typing. Except for Microsoft Office, which is full of poorly documented features that none of us can master unless we use it all day long!

  3. I’m having some success with LibreOffice as well. I still have a fairly recent Microsoft Office installation on my Mac, as the publishers I’ve dealt with often insist on getting Word files and that clearly, nothing else will do, but come time to upgrade, I intend to do some serious checking and see if LibreOffice isn’t good enough.

    Also, I’ve discovered that smaller software houses tend to be much less oink-headed about activation and other foolishness. Likewise, they’re often less inclined to bloat their software to play pip-bingo. They know they’re competing against the big makers, and to carve out that niche they want to deliver something the big guys won’t, or can’t. The big catch: a lot of them in the Mac world go through the Mac app store. While not as restrictive as the iphone app store, Mac App Store /does/ impose Apple’s Fairplay DRM. As DRM goes, it’s pretty reasonable, but still.

    I disagree on operating systems, though, on the following grounds: security and support. The former is, I’m sure, abundantly obvious. The holes your OS was born with are there unless they were patched, and the patching stops when support is dropped, even though the hole-finding does not.

    The latter more complex. In the Mac world, backward compatibility is not a given. Apple changes things in the OS from release to release, often (deliberately) screwing applications that rely on undocumented APIs, often to make the platform more security conscious so those self-same undocumented APIs aren’t used for malware. Or so they say.
    More to the point, because OS X is so intimate with the hardware, it is usually impossible to get a newer Mac to run a version of OS X that was released before the mac was born. This inevitably comes up when your trusted laptop turns out to be fatally allergic to beer or similar tragedies, and abruptly you’re two full revisions newer in the OS, AND A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER OF YOUR APS STOP WORKING. Usually, this is the result of a compatibility library, which was always intended to be temporary, being used long after its sell-by date.
    (Adobe is often the offender here – they tend to cling to trailing edge APIs (like Carbonlib) until Apple not only deprecates them but stops shipping them altogether.) By deliberately pushing evolution in their products, Apple achieves its much vaunted reliability, but the cost is that really antique aps won’t run without actually emulating the machines of the past. Does anyone wonder why, with my desktop and laptop both incapable of running the latest version of OS X, I’m starting to have second thoughts about my platform choice?

    1. Erbo says:

      Jim, you’re absolutely right on the security aspect, and I will go further: Any Internet-facing software must be kept up-to-date with all security patches available for it, and, if it gets to a state where there are no more security patches being made available for it, it must be replaced. There are a lot more people out there working to break your software than there are working to fix it, and, even though most of them will be working on finding the holes in the newer stuff, it only takes one “remote code execution” exploit for your machine to get pwnz0r3d.

      1. Erbo says:

        And, with this in mind, let me remind Jeff and other continuing WinXP users that it is now T-365 days until Microsoft drops support. After this, continuing to run XP on any Internet-connected machine will be inherently dangerous and not recommended.

        My personal view, which I’ve held for awhile, is that “Win7 is the new XP.” By which I mean that people will be holding out on this version for awhile rather than upgrade to the piece-of-crap Win8, just like people held out with XP rather than switch to the piece-of-crap Vista.

  4. Then there are long-term projects. I won’t write a book with Word — Word will get revised beyond recognition before it’s time for me to write the next edition. I write books with LaTeX, which is stable. I do mathematics with R, which is stable. I know plenty of my fellow academics whose programming experiments are done under Linux because it can still run, absolutely unchanged, source code and scripts from early UNIX. Scientists often have to be able to replicate their results after a long delay, either to confirm them or to pick up a research project that they had put aside. Running the software of 1985 today is often a real need.

    1. Amen to that. And thank you for reminding me. I try to maintain RTF copies of all my work, and now that I’m using Scrivener, I need to make sure I save a copy that way. Of everything.

  5. I should add that Apple does go to great lengths not to change supported, documented APIs without years and years of notice. I should also note that after 3 or 4 years of using BeOS, longing for commercial software, it’s hard to now resent it.

  6. Jon says:

    I have Office 2K on at least one machine because it’s the only general-purpose word-processing program that still allows you to mail-merge labels easily. They’ve stripped (or at least concealed very well) this functionality in later versions. If I need to, I’ll use LibreOffice for other word processing.

  7. In my situation, support and security are key. I do admin a domain, so those are both very important to me. For an individual staying with whatever you want can be OK, but you can also be bitten in a way that you do not want. Ultimately, any file format, save for plain text, will be obsolete. If you can keep moving/converting, then your projects should be OK. Linux, LibreOffice, Thunderbird, are all fine choices, but don’t lock yourself into one level/version of them. I am dual booting my laptop with Win 7 and Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. Ubuntu LTS now gives 5 years of support. I would strongly think of moving to 16.04 soon after it arrives. On the Windows side, I am not thinking of upgrading to Win 8, but might consider “Win 9”. That move may require new hardware and it could be the time to do so based on hardware performance/age. In general I subscribe to an “every other” version regimen.
    As for Libre Office, we use it to supplement the limited version of Office 2007 in a Bridging the Digital Divide program that I work in.

  8. Gary Mugford says:

    A few years back, one of my clients got one of ‘THOSE’ letters from the professional blackmailers in the employ of a ‘group’ of software publishers. As a consultant, my advice was to tell the CEO to tell the lawyers without a cause to pound salt. But, to cover my bases, I went in and did an inventory and discovered a computer sitting unused of the floor in a corner of a not-often used office, did, indeed, have the offending software on it. That the person who previously used the office was likely the installer of the forbidden software AND the snitch, enraged me–the ultimate setup and retirement bonus all rolled into one. Regardless, it now had to be dealt with. I also found some utilities and assorted other items with dubious or actual ‘do-not-use commercially for free’ products. So, changes were made and a negotiated settlement was required. The company got nicked for NOT keeping license data on 10-year old copies of MS Windows and paid for it. And there was a nominal fine that was nowhere near the zillion-multiple the lawyers without a cause originally asked for. But the result, three weeks later, was a company free of all software from any member of the alliance behind the lawyers, save for Windows. In fact, nothing but four niche programs with no open-source allegories survived the purge. The alliance members probably earned out in the five figures from the company before the blackmail notice and, to date, the company hasn’t spent a red cent with any of them in the almost three years since. Plus, I managed to write a tolerable version of one of the niche products and have one more in the percolating kettle (in Delphi 7, natch). You CAN stop paying over and over for unneeded features and slower performances with just a little effort on the part of your IT department. And if you do decide to hit the tip jar, remember, you get the ability to tell the conglomerates to shove it, vicariously or otherwise.

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