Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Obsolete Software

Software doesn't "wear out" over time.  So why do they keep making us buy new versions?

I called Quickbooks the other day, to see about setting up a merchant account with them.  They asked what version of Quickbooks I was using and I checked - it was Quickbooks Pro 2002.   The salesman on the phone suppressed a chuckle.

He probably would laugh even harder if I told him the only reason I went to 2002 was that my Accountant could no longer import my 1997 version of Quickbooks into her computer, as the file formats were incompatible.

The program was not cheap - about $250 at the time, as I recall.  But it works well and does everything I want it to.  Why mess with success?

Similarly, after hanging on to WordPerfect 5.1 until the bitter end, I was drawn, kicking and screaming into the world of Windows and Microsoft Word.   It is not a bad program, but tries to do everything from typesetting a book to printing a Christmas Card.   It took a long time to learn the program, and I am still using the Word 2000 (Office 2000) version of it, despite Microsoft's best efforts to screw things up.

Good software does what you need it to do, and doesn't "wear out" like a car.  And that is the problem for software developers.   How can you run a company and make payroll once everyone who wants your program has bought it?  And the answer, of course, is to offer an upgrade.  Problem is, not everyone wants an upgrade.   So the next answer is to force them to upgrade.

Windows XP was a pretty stable platform, compared to other versions of Windows.   And when they came out with Windows Vista, well, not many people wanted to switch.   Today a lot of computers are still running XP and probably will for many years.   So Microsoft has stopped support of XP and no further upgrades or patches will be available.  Trying to get a computer to run XP is problematic these days.

A neighbor bought a laptop at a garage sale, for $5.  It ran XP - slowly.   I was trying to see if it would stream Netflix and YouTube, and I had to upgrade silverlight and flash player.   The bad news was, it had service pack 1 on it, not service pack 2.   And Microsoft didn't offer support anymore, at least not directly.  I finally found Service Pack 2 on a "developer's" page and loaded it.   It wasn't easy to get the old machine to work in a modern environment, even though back in the day, it was perfectly suited for the same tasks.   And yes, when all was said and done, it streamed Netflix and YouTube just fine.  Getting a wireless card to work for it and getting XP to network with the router - another story.  I had forgotten how awkward networking was, back in the day.

Many other developers are moving to online "cloud" solutions.  Quickbooks wants me to sign up for an online service for $13.95 a month (!!!) forever.  This is obviously a better business model for Quickbooks, but not necessarily for me.   Turbotax went to this model, but Turbotax is the kind of software that has to be upgraded annually anyway, due to changes in the tax laws.

I can appreciate the software developer's conundrum.   You want to keep your job.  You just wrote the most perfect piece of software.  It sells like hotcakes.   But then the market saturates and no more sales are forthcoming.   What do you do?  Lay everyone off and close the business?   No, you have to keep developing and selling new products, and finding a way to convince people to shell out more and more money for upgrades or new versions of the same product.  Obsolescence is one way to do this.

Another way is bugs, viruses, and security breaches.   So long as your operating system or software is under attack from "hackers" you can send out patches and fixes and upgrades to your users, as Windows does, right now, for free.   Why do they do this for free?    Many commercial software providers charge a service for this.   Windows does it, I think, to keep their market share and also to keep their software in  sensitive places like government installations.   If you don't patch, you get a bad reputation and people will think about other, proprietary software, or even (God forbid!) Linux.

But maybe in the future, such patches and upgrades will be charged for as part of a "service package" and a monthly service charge.

So what's the problem in all of this?   Many folks would look at the cost of Quickbooks online and say, "Well, $13.95, that's just a trip to Starbucks!" and maybe for a business of 50 people, that is a pretty incidental cost.   But for a solo operation, it is a lot of money just to balance the checkbook and send out invoices - particularly when the existing program does this, for free.

It is called subscription fatigue - tiny little monthly costs that add up and can sink the individual or small business, if they are not kept in check.

I've tried some of the newer versions of software.  The new Microsoft WORD is so confusing that I can't find anything I used to be able to find easily.   It took years to learn the old WORD - do I really want to spend years learning the new one?    OpenOffice, on the other hand, was very easy to use and was familiar to any WORD 2000 user.   Funny how that works.

Of course, getting older programs to work can be problematic.   With VISTA, we had to run "legacy" programs in "Windows 95 mode" to get them to work, and often the help screens would be disabled.  Windows 7 seems to handle them better.  Windows 8 or 10?   Beats me.  I plan on staying with 7 for a good long time.

But eventually, computers wear out, and maybe someday I'll have a newer computer with a newer O/S that won't recognize my older programs.   At that point, I will be forced (again, kicking and screaming) to be brought into a new age.   I am hoping, at least, that my current software will carry my forward into retirement, at least.

If you have older software, and it works fine for you, why bother upgrading?   Spending $250 a year just to have new software is wasteful.   Not only that, think of the man-hours wasted installing new software and learning how to us it!   It is far cheaper to flog the older product and keep using it, so long as it is useful.

And to all you software developers out there, well, I'm sorry.   But frankly, you guys screw up a wet dream so often, it is really hard to feel too sorry for you!

UPDATE:  So, yes, I am using a word-processing program that is 20 years old now.  However, since I am now retired, I rarely use it anymore.  It served me well for two decades, however.

And Quickbooks Pro 2002?  Still going strong, after 18 years.  Sometimes you have to run these programs in "Win95 Compatibility Mode" and the "Help" features have stopped working.

But after a couple of decades, I don't need the "Help" features much!

Windows 7 Ultimate works well on my old Toshiba laptops, and is very stable.  And since I have the install disks (old school) it is easy to re-install it, if I put in a new hard drive or whatever (both are now maxed out on HD size, one has had two upgrades).

Windows 10?   Uh, no thanks.  I don't need an O/S that tries to be look like a smart phone.

With any luck, this software should last me long enough to the point where I stop using software - or die.