Why old software versions matter

In a recent post on the oldversion.com blog attention was drawn to a comment left on the site’s Facebook page by a user who said:

“I am using your oldversion.com resource to restore some really low resource computers to give to people who have no money to buy a computer for themselves or their children.”

What a fantastic use of the oldversion.com service!

If ever there was an argument for maintaining freely available archives of old versions of software, then this has to be one of the better ones. Why should access to computers and the Internet be the sole preserve of those privileged enough to afford it?

oldversion.com‘s administrator, Alex, added:

“Unfortunately, software makers don’t often take into account that there are still developing parts of the world that cannot afford the latest and greatest gadgets, but yet still need to have their PDF file render properly or be able to word process.”

So, while software developers are endlessly iterating their software, building in ever more features, on ever more powerful systems, end users who don’t refresh their technology in line with those development cycles often reach a point beyond which the hardware requirements of the software become greater than those of the system they are using.

From the particular to the universal

Let’s take the example of someone using old software versions to help provide access to computers and imagine that on a wider and more coordinated scale. Except we don’t have to imagine that scenario, thanks to organisations like Computer Aid International.

Computer Aid is a charity that recycles used PCs in service of its aim to create, “A world where rich and poor have equal access to ICT.” Aside from financial donations, Computer Aid is reliant on the benevolence of individuals and organisations who donate their used computer hardware for the purposes of recycling.

By the time computers reach the stage where they are ready to be recycled, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the technology is not quite state of the art, meaning that the best bits of each of PC must be stripped and compiled into systems that meet certain requirements. Computer Aid’s own information about their Standard PCs lists the following specifications:

  • a minimum of 512 MB RAM
  • a minimum of 1.8Ghz processors (AMD – XP+ processor, Celeron 1.8Ghz+ processor)
  • a minimum of 40Gb hard disk

Optional upgrades are available that include ramping systems up to include a minimum of 1Gb RAM, 2.8Ghz processors, and 80Gb of disk space. So, even with all available upgrades fitted to a machine, the minimum specification finished product is a Pentium 4 equivalent, with 1Gb RAM and an 80Gb hard disk.

By today’s standards and in ‘the developed world’, without meaning to detract from the valuable service that Computer Aid provides, the RAM and disk specifications are pretty pedestrian and, if loaded with all the latest versions of commonly used software, these systems would quickly suffer in the performance and usability stakes.

Systems supplied by Computer Aid are shipped with no software installed by default, although it is possible for organisations requesting computers to specify which software they would like installed on their machines. Computer Aid is a Microsoft Registered Refurbisher, which allows them to install Windows XP for a small fee, with Windows 7 also available for higher-specification machines. Additionally, the organisation offers Windows XP along with Microsoft Office Basic (Word and Excel) for not much more, and an open-source option comprising of Ubuntu and Open Office.

Leaving aside issues of operating system support for Windows XP, or the resource hungry requirements of Windows 7, we’re left with a very definite set of parameters within which users of the refurbished PCs and the software that runs on them have to operate.  And, if the goal is a world where everyone has equal access to IT, and we acknowledge the fact that not everybody is currently afforded the luxury of running the latest, greatest hardware configurations, then old versions of software take on an entirely new dimension.

No longer are old versions of software redundant bits of software history that have been superseded by their contemporary counterparts, but instead they became crucial components in the practice of facilitating equal access to IT for all.

This is why old versions of software and the provision of access to them matters.

It means that proprietary software developers and publishers, staunch defenders of that misnomer ‘Intellectual Property‘, copyright fiends, and wider society as a whole need to view old versions of software in a new and progressive way: Not as defunct possessions that are to be condemned to the recycle bin forever, but as legacy contributions to humanity – vital computing resources that can and should be freely accessible to all to help ensure more equal access to IT for those who cannot afford to endlessly refresh their hardware.

After all, from the perspective of software developers and publishers, old software has already been sold, licensed and supported to the end of its life cycle, so the rewards have already been reaped for the effort that went into creating them.

Why not then allow that old software to exist in the public domain for the greater public good?  Who knows, in time those users you allowed to use your legacy software may go on to become fully-fledged, paid-up users of your current software offerings.

This article, was written for, contributed to, and originally published on the oldversions.com blog.  The version above contains an exclusive free bonus sentence.

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