Keeping Dead Products Alive: Tips for Supporting Legacy Software

Software companies rely on regular customer upgrades and decommissioning old titles. But what is good for vendors isn't so great for IT, which often has to support unsupported software.

Nearly 80 years ago, the term "planned obsolescence" was coined by Bernard London, a New York City real estate professional and amateur economist. The idea, which London thought was a darn good one, was to design products with a limited lifespan so consumers regularly had to get new ones, thus keeping the economy going.

This is why you don't see many 1983 Ford Escorts tooling around. While cheap old cars rust out or fall apart, software should keep chugging. "Unlike hearts, lungs, knees, eyes or kidneys, software just doesn't wear out or get weak," says reader Fred Linton. But old software ends up just as obsolete as your junk Ford. That's because vendors choose to make it that way.

Even though code doesn't stop working unless corrupted, software goes out of date in a variety of ways. The biggest death blow strikes when vendors stop support. No more features but, more critically, no more security updates.

Another problem is when new environments won't run old products. Even if a new version of Windows looks and acts largely the same, many older applications and hardware no longer operate.

Redmond magazine heard from some 30 readers -- all IT pros -- about their frustrations with unsupported software and how they deal with them.

Short Course on Support
Each software company has its own support policies, which sometimes vary from product to product. For this article, we were mostly concerned with the basics of how Microsoft support works. When a Redmond product comes out, it's fully supported. That means service packs are created, patches written and released, and compatibility with current environments is maintained to the best of Microsoft's ability. This lasts for five years, and patches and software updates and service packs are all free.

After five years comes "Extended Support." Plain old customers get software updates and service packs for free -- but not much more. Those with a volume license go on "Extended Support" and can also buy an "Extended Hotfix Agreement" that provides full security support.

Fortunately, all customers -- so long as they're legal -- get patches and other security-related fixes. After 10 years, though, there's basically no support, no patches and no security fixes.

Security Scare
The biggest thing that disappears when support ends are security updates and patches for critical flaws and zero-day exploits. This is the main way vendors scare you into upgrading.

Jim Adcock, a SharePoint consultant, works in a shop that uses iNotion as a repository for documents and records. "The repository cannot be accessed with browsers more recent than Internet Explorer 6. This leaves our systems with older unsupported browsers with security flaws," Adcock says. "We're currently migrating to a new product for document and records management: SharePoint 2010. There is no newer version of iNotion because the company that made it is no longer in business. We tried a migration last year to another product that did not meet our needs and had to roll back to iNotion."

Not all are so nervous about running old apps, though. "I think the 'security' issue is a bit overcooked," says Bruce Roeser, an independent freelance developer.

Forced Upgrade March
Software wouldn't become obsolete if companies didn't want it to be. Forced upgrades put money in vendors' coffers but leave you holding the bag -- and your old software. And many of these new titles aren't wanted–even if they're free. As one Redmond reader says: "Microsoft is way too focused on rolling out new versions every three years and making us upgrade, [rather] than focusing on quality. I don't need the interface of Windows and Office. My users hate the changes and prefer not to upgrade at all. We just started to get them sold on Windows 7 and Windows 8 is changing the GUI again?" the reader complains.

One example is the Office Ribbon, which debuted in Office 2007 and now graces Office 2010. A huge number of users vastly prefer the old interface (they hate the Ribbon), but Office 2003 will soon be no longer officially supported. To maintain full support, IT will have to upgrade and train users on a new interface they don't even like.

Reader Dick Lutz is also weary of forced Office upgrades. "Every now and then, Microsoft 'fixes' the Office suite, perhaps hoping to reorient users away from the excellent adaptations of the previous style of interface by other vendors. The 'Ribbon' brings us nothing but a new and wholly unnecessary learning curve. In tweaking what needs no tweaking, the company creates minor chaos in the orbit of other software," says Lutz, editor and publisher of The Main Street WIRE in Roosevelt Island in New York. "My determination to stick with products that I know well keeps me in WordPerfect's camp: I still use WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS almost every day and -- for page layout -- use antique PageMaker, which does everything I need without the learning climb of InDesign."

New OSes are also a big shift. "I hate the Windows 7 user interface with a deep purple passion. Windows 7 took away functionality, and the UI is hard to use and dysfunctional in some ways," says one Redmond reader.

Besides the hassle of upgrading and trading, there's the pure issue of dollars and cents, often a lot of dollars and cents. "For the most part, 'upgrading' means I pay additional dollars to get nothing I need in return," says developer Roeser.

The Case for New (and Old)
Some IT pros like having a choice -- the choice to move to new software where it makes sense and keep running the old stuff when upgrading doesn't make sense. "As an IT person, you should always move up to the new operating system if at all possible. If you're going to keep an older machine, it's functioning well and you're not going to put the money into it for upgrades, keep it until it dies. I don't see the big deal," says W. Mitchell. "My various home systems will be on XP, probably until they die. I can't justify $200-plus OS upgrades for machines worth $50 to $100. The machines work fine, and do what I need them to do, so I can't justify replacing them."

Were it always so simple. Some shops buy new software to interact with others using new software. "If everybody you do business with is expecting your Word documents as .docx, what are you to do? On the other hand, Microsoft has been pretty good with backward compatibility. There's an extension you can install to Office 2003 that reads the extended formats," Roeser adds.

I Heart XP
While support for Windows XP won't fully expire until 2014, IT is already agitated. Let's face it: IT has figured out how to troubleshoot XP, and most XP PCs were long ago paid for and amortized. And because IT gave Windows Vista such a wide berth, there are plenty of fresh XP installs. Looking at losing support in less than three years for an OS that was just installed isn't fun. "For our purposes, XP is the most reliable and functional OS that Microsoft ever developed. We've had nothing but problems with Windows 7 -- on new machines! We've kept XP on old machines and laptops and netbooks with no problems," says reader Dick Schultz.

Longtime reader and development specialist C. Marc Wagner puts it more succinctly: "XP won't die. Why should it? The damned thing just plain works."

Software developer Roeser, who runs Office 2003 at home, is passionate about his old software. "You can have my Office 2003 when you can pry it from my cold, dead fingers!" he exclaims. "I've thought about retrograding the suite on my office machine back to 2003, but the GUI in 2003 is just cleaner and easier to work with."

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Support
Some products are so simple or stable they don't need support. "I'm still using Outlook Express -- it's easy to use, simple and gets the job done. Too bad it's no longer supported, but who needs support? It just works," says Dean, a reader.

Others just don't see value in Microsoft support. "I won't miss their support when it's gone. I use their support very little. We all know Microsoft is running a scam on introducing new OSes in conjunction with the PC manufacturers to make it cheaper to get a new PC with the OS installed, than to update an old PC," says Dennis Webb, DP technician for the Community Action Council in Lexington, Ky. "If the OS works with my applications, that's all I care about."

Webb currently supports some 100 PCs, running Windows 95 and Windows 98, which are used in Head Start classrooms. "Windows 95 is all I need. What's even more interesting is how fast Windows 95 can be loaded. I use a Compaq restore disk, and it takes about 20 minutes to wipe out and restore the OS. Using a restore disk from HP, it takes about four hours to reload a Windows 7 laptop," Webb says. He has some doubts about Microsoft's most recent OS. "I've rolled several HP computers back to Windows XP from Windows 7. I really prefer XP to Windows 7 and haven't found any advantage to Windows 7."

Webb's views are echoed by reader Linton. "'Still supported' or 'no longer supported' -- makes very little difference. I've never been able to garner free support from Microsoft for anything. Either it's been the responsibility of the OEM to support the OS or my issue was one that required payment," says Linton. "My 'support' has always come from friends or colleagues on Usenet or at work. And vendor support is, in my book, as much a myth as the universally recommended and utterly fictional 'Windows installation disk.' Not since the days of Windows 3.1 have I ever seen such a chimerical beastie."

Gary Lea is not worried about the impending end of XP support. "Are all the computers running XP just going to die on that day? In [a bit more than] two years, Microsoft will stop supporting XP. That doesn't mean it's dead. It just means we won't be getting updates every fourth Tuesday. We probably won't need them because the hackers will be concentrating on Windows 7 or Windows 8 or whatever the current over-bloated Microsoft OS is at the time," says Lea. "My theory has always been that if it works for you, there's no reason to change. I know a few people that are still using Win 98! It still works, and you don't need (tons) of RAM to support it."

Self Support
Keeping an old OS alive is easier if you have coding skills like R. Loew from Elmont, N.Y. "I use Windows 98SE almost exclusively. It's faster, more compact, more flexible and easier to debug than the newer versions. I've developed patches and add-ons that support modern hardware, sometimes even better than the newer Windows. Windows XP will choke on a 3TB hard drive. I use 3TB hard drives with DOS and Windows 98 without problems," says Loew.

Developer Roeser goes out of his way to run the old stuff. "I keep the distribution sets on a USB hard drive and re-install them if I'm moving to a new system. If an OS upgrade really does break a piece of software, then I guess I just need a new version," he says.

Total Abandonment
So far, we've mostly been talking about old products for which there's a new version you can migrate to. Not all of you are so lucky. "Far worse than abandoning previous versions of programs is the abandonment of entire products and the limbo that sometimes accompanies that. Microsoft Office Accounting Pro (MSOA) was a great product that made sense -- especially for small businesses that could integrate Outlook, Business Contact Manager and Accounting," recalls one MSOA customer. "However, MSOA sat in a freakish limbo for a long time until the issue was finally forced and Microsoft quietly admitted -- in a software support timetable -- that they were bailing on it. Whether we asked MSOA specialist bloggers or even contacts within Microsoft, nobody had any clue for a long time."

Dang Devices
Device drivers are one of the biggest bugaboos. And you can't just upgrade unsupported hardware; you have to buy an all-new device! "I'm still running a machine on XP due to HP offering no Vista or Windows 7 drivers for a printer and a scanner of theirs. Not even a universal driver. Those were the last devices I purchased from HP. You don't support me, I don't support you," says a frustrated ex-HP customer.

Some folks expect software drivers and hardware interfaces to work nearly forever. One Redmond reader has a scanner he bought for an Intel 80486-based PC that originally ran Windows ME, an OS that's more than 10 years old, with support that ended a half-decade ago.

This reader now wants to run the scanner under Windows Vista -- which the OS won't do. His answer? Keep running the old driver on the old machine. He's still fuming. "I'll no longer buy HP or Microsoft products without remembering they took my money then shut me off. Those who opine that these are hardware-driven product requirements, please shut up. These decisions were made to make money. Old devices could easily communicate with more modern software if manufacturers and software developers didn't think it acceptable to abandon their customers," the reader says.

Another reader is running even older software. "I have an ancient laptop chained under the desk running DOS 6.22 to run a program used to set up Motorola HT1000 portable radios. I can't get it to run in a 'DOS box' under any version of Windows. The radios will probably last another five to six years, so until then, I have to keep a relic running," the reader explains.

Older Is Better
In some instances, upgrading means going backward. "I have computers with most versions of Windows except Vista and Windows 7. An old computer with Windows 98 is used with Access 97 for an ongoing database project. That combination is much faster even though the CPU isn't particularly fast. For safety, the computer isn't connected to the Internet," explains one reader.

Windows 98 also still has a loyal following. "We have one Windows 98SE workstation left in our office that runs an old program [for which we have] no plans to upgrade -- it works fine. All of the office workstations are XP running Office 2003, with no issues and no plans to change. We don't need the new features or headaches. This is a working office with no need for extra features or fancy screens. My Windows 7 SP1 crashes too many times at home to recommend any change for the office," says a reader.

Newer software doesn't always support critical needs. "I needed central data storage for a typing program in a small school district for 16 computers. Because XP will only allow 10 concurrent connections, I dragged out an old Windows 98 machine and set it up as the data repository. Why set up a server when a simple peer-to-peer network will do the job?" asks a reader from western Montana.

We've been talking about software being old at five or 10 years. Large systems software can last far longer than that. "The lifecycle of some computer applications is as much as 15 years. The State of Michigan accounting system was old when it was implemented in 1994 and is mainframe-based. Historical data is important and many systems are integrated with it. Though the interfaces are old, the functionality still works. A wholesale Web-based rewrite would be expensive, catastrophic, time-consuming and a monster project. But it needs to be done someday," says a Michigan-based IT pro.

Feeling Vendors' Pain
Not all readers are so down on vendors, especially those that write software themselves. "That vendors want to discontinue support of older products to get you to buy new is partially true. But it's very expensive to support multiple versions of any product. I do custom programming and have a product used by several clients. I have to insist that everyone update because it's just too complicated to keep track of multiple versions," says reader Mike from Ann Arbor, Mich.

Reader Wagner is a fan of new software. "Office XP is awfully long in the tooth now. After all, it was followed by Office 2003 and Office 2007 well before Office 2010 became available. Users should never allow themselves to fall more than two versions behind any version of software upon which they're dependent. That just guarantees you trouble down the road," argues Wagner.

Other developers have the most sympathy. "Considering that they're burping out a new OS every three years, I don't know how else they could do it. For a product that you can buy for just a couple hundred bucks -- if you don't buy a system -- that's awful generous. Think about it a minute: When you buy a car, do you get the same? An OS like Windows represents a massive investment in R&D and development. You can't afford to give away free support on a $200 item forever," says developer Roeser.

Roeser, however, sees both sides. "Old dogs like me feel pulled in two directions. On the one hand, I really like the latest cool gadgetry but, on the other hand, I see no reason to upgrade a dozen other titles that continue to serve me well."


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