The abandonware economy

We are rapidly moving toward a future where users will no longer have any control over the software they purchase. No physical copies and no digital backups. This article is about the shift from physical / Internet distribution to App Store-only distribution and the implications this has for users.

A couple of times a year I visit my parents at their home in British Columbia, Canada. Each time I visit, I spend some time rummaging through my childhood belongings, and this summer I looked through my old video game collection. I can remember vividly the hours of fun my high school friends and I had playing Playstation and Xbox games. These games (along with some collector’s edition strategy guides) are proudly organized.

The great thing about these collections is that I can take any one of these games, insert the disc into a console, and start playing. Assuming the consoles don’t break (and I don’t expect them to), I could enjoy these classics with my own kids someday. My wife and I each have a Game Boy Advance and accompanying games, as well as twenty-two year old Nintendo 64. These consoles are not only indestructible, but all the cartridges function — many of them retaining saved games dating back to the late 1990s. Now that’s an investment. Even my Atari 1040 ST — which was originally released in 1989 — still boots up and runs floppy disc programs I was told would “degrade” long ago.

Nintendo cartridge-based games over the years. CC image courtesy of wisekris on Flickr

Increasingly, the software we purchase — whether it’s productivity suites or games — is done through a store that’s locked to a mobile or desktop platform. This software will inevitably become “abandonware.” Software will die with the platform on which we purchased it, and there is little recourse for users to create backups of their purchases.

All software eventually gets abandoned. It’s simply not feasible for developers to support every version of their software indefinitely. But, the advent of mobile platforms and the App Store distribution model have created the worst kind of abandonware — one where our purchases can disappear anytime and without notice. This business model has also made its way to desktop computing and gaming.

The term “abandonware” was allegedly coined by Peter Ringering — founder of the Abandonware Ring. in 1996. His definition is as follows

“Abandonware is defined as any PC or console game that is:1. At least four years old
2. Not being sold or supported by the company that produced it or by any other company. When a certain piece of Abandonware is later found to be sold or supported by a company, then it ceases to be Abandonware.”

— Peter Ringering

Ringering’s definition is very video game-centric. Oxford defines the term more broadly as

“Computer software that is no longer distributed or supported by the developer or copyright holder.”

— Oxford Dictionary

The advent of sufficient broadband Internet allowed for app developers to distribute their work without brick and mortar stores. Today, it’s trivial for a user to navigate to a software developer’s website, purchase an app, and download and install the file. Digital downloads can be backed up by the user — using physical media (hard drives, USB, DVD, etc) or stored in the cloud. All is good.

The “app store” model doesn’t allow for this kind of flexibility because users have no control over their digital files. Abandoned apps are difficult (if not impossible to back up). Marc Zeedar, writing for Mac blog Tidbits, describes a problematic scenario regarding user data.

“…because iOS doesn’t give users access to the file system, and apps themselves are sandboxed (meaning that one app can’t access another app’s data), if you have data in an abandoned app, that data is most likely inaccessible.”

— Marc Zeedar

Paying for apps doesn’t guarantee the user’s indefinite access. App business models can change at anytime. The excellent dictionary app Terminology — by developer Agile Toroise — is an example of this. The app was once paid only. Upon upgrading to the newest version, users would notice that they had the “free” version of the app installed. The app now had ads, and if the user wanted to remove these ads more payment would be required. What happened to the paid app you used to have? You can find dozens of examples of apps that removed user privileges and required more payment following an update. In this sense, the app store model acts more like a rental service that provides temporary privileges for a price.

The evolution of mobile platforms also exacerbated this problem. Apple’s iOS 11 only supports 64 bit apps, relegating 32 bit apps incompatible. If a developer decides the app isn’t profitable enough to update, it will cease to function unless the user remains on the older operating system.

The app store model has migrated to console gaming since the 7th generation. Consoles offer all their games (and some exclusively) through an online store. Despite the convenience, digital games have no resale value and titles cannot be shared. How many times does one have to purchase Super Mario 3, Final Fantasy IV, and Sonic for each subsequent console? Increasingly, older games are re-released as “special editions” on new consoles — often at higher price points.

This app store model could have serious repercussions in the long-run. If too many users get burned because their apps are abandoned, there will be little incentive to purchase anything. Instead, companies that support apps longer (and have superior infrastructure) will become dominant, not those that introduce innovative features. Someone might choose to stick with ad supported apps with limited feature sets, rather than shell out for paid ones.

Subscriptions services have been posed as a solution to abandonware. With the increase in the subscription economy, and Apple encouraging developers to move to a subscription model for apps, this isn’t surprising. But is this realistic? Do users really want to manage five, ten, or twenty monthly subscriptions?

Software doesn’t last forever and it shouldn’t be viewed as anything but a depreciating investment. But, the app store removes all control from the user.

One of my favourite websites is the Byte Cellar by Blake Patterson. He has an amazing collection of old computers and game systems, and he displays it proudly. When I reflect on my own hardware and software collection, I’m glad knowing that I’ll be able to enjoy it for the foreseeable future. But this notion of collecting software is quickly coming to an end. Thankfully, my favourite apps and games will no doubt be re-relased in HD — ready for re-purchase on the next hardware platform.

Originally published at on September 12, 2018.