Apps Don’t Live Forever
Maybe it’s time to put aside aging applications, utilities, codes, and hardware
How long can you use an application?
For as long as it works?
For as long as other systems you use rely on it?
For as long as your computer recognizes it as viable code?
These and other questions occurred to me after we learned that the Brexit document, the one that finalizes Britain’s split from the European Union, includes some bizarre text referring to the current use of the 20-year-old Netscape Communicator email software and an out-of-date hashing algorithm for encrypting messages containing DNA profiles.
The document refers to Netscape Communicator, along with Outlook and Mozilla Mail, as “modern e-mail [yes, with the hyphen] software packages” without even mentioning Gmail.
I joked on Twitter that this inclusion likely meant that someone, somewhere in the British government was still using this hoary old app. Others surmised that the someone had simply cut and pasted the text from an old document. That makes some sense if you consider the use of SHA-1, which was retired in 2017 instead of the newer and more secure SHA-256 hashtag algorithm. However, it’s hard to account for the inclusion of Netscape Communicator, which hasn’t been in wide use for at least 15 years.
Governments using antiquated hardware and software is not unusual. As late as 2016, the U.S. Dept. of Defense employed 8-inch floppy disks (ask your parents) to coordinate nuclear operations, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers. In the Pentagon, Windows 95 and 98 remained popular until 2017.
That desire to hold onto old technology is not confined to Government operations. On Twitter, one follower proudly revealed that his company still supports Netscape and he personally uses Microsoft Money 2000, one of a collection of Office apps Microsoft released in 1999 (calling it “2000” was just a tiny bit of future-proofing). Discontinued over a decade ago, Microsoft Money might work on Windows 10, but it certainly isn’t supported.
In a way, I don’t blame this guy. 20 years of his personal finances are tied up in the application and migration could be a pain or impossible. Microsoft didn't help matters much by only offering a thin, albeit free, download called Money Plus Sunset Deluxe, one of the few apps ever created with an oxymoron in its name (“Sunset” and “Deluxe”?).
There are many reasons why government and consumers don't upgrade. Compatibility is a major one. You can’t rip out old hardware or software if other systems depend on it. Cost is another. The application you own (really license) doesn't cost a thing, though it is sort of depreciating in value by the minute. Even if the cost of new software isn’t onerous, new hardware to support it could cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars (or millions if you’re a government).
Sometimes we don't upgrade because we like what we have. It’s familiar and we don’t like change. This is why people don’t upgrade their operating systems unless forced to. Change is inevitable, but few people say it’s good.
For years, I used a drawing app called Aldus Freehand, first on the Mac and then on Windows. Adobe eventually bought Aldus and, after a few years of supporting and even upgrading it, they sunseted the app. I kept using Aldus Freehand, though, until it no longer worked with the latest version of Windows, which left me with hundreds of unreadable Freehand illustration files.
Other times, we hold onto old apps for nostalgia. Remember Flappy Bird? It was a simple, yet wildly popular iOS game released in 2013 by Dong Nguyen, who became so overwhelmed by its success that he ceased development and pulled the app from the App Store.
For a time, I had the app because it was carried along with each of my iPhone backups. Eventually it disappeared (I don’t remember how or when) and I mourned it until a new developer created a knockoff called “Faby Bird.”
Other people hold onto mobile and desktop apps and OSes that are more dangerous, like outdated security software, messaging and email apps, all avenues for hackers and black hat developers. Not updating or using an app like Netscape Communicator — if you could even make it run — is a recipe for disaster. As is using an app like Money 2000. Sure, it probably just works, but there’s no way a two-decade-old app is prepared for modern threats.
Sometimes it’s best to just let go or, you know, agree to a “Techxit.”