How us­ing decade­old soft­ware puts us all at risk ...............................................................

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Some­thing has been both­er­ing me lately: the lazy ex­pec­ta­tion of peo­ple for on­go­ing up­dates for their cho­sen plat­form. This wasn’t a prob­lem in the old days when there were struc­tural, ar­chi­tec­tural rea­sons why you had to move for­ward, when there were nat­u­ral break­points in the flow of hard­ware and thus the OS and apps that ran on top.

A good ex­am­ple of this was the move from 16-bit to 32-bit. If you didn’t have a 386 or later CPU, then you couldn’t run the lat­est OS code. It cre­ated a nat­u­ral fire break that helped flush the old 286 world out of the sys­tem.

In con­trast, lit­tle re­ally changed with the move to 64-bit on desk­tops. Worse still, Moore’s law has ap­plied with a vengeance, and I would ar­gue that desk­top hard­ware ex­ceeded our ca­pa­bil­i­ties to con­sume the avail­able re­sources well over a decade ago. Since then, ev­ery­thing has been about power re­duc­tion, re­duc­ing the heat out­put of the de­vice to try to be­come ever greener.

In the mo­bile phone world, it has been much eas­ier, if only be­cause peo­ple have a nat­u­rally hu­man ten­dency to drop the item, whether it be onto con­crete or down the toi­let, and hence the churn has been higher. This has al­lowed a much more ag­gres­sive rate of for­ward mo­men­tum, de­spite Google’s seem­ingly end­less de­sire to ship old ver­sions of An­droid.

On iOS, we’ve seen an ag­gres­sive push to 64-bit for OS and apps, and this 64-bit-only mantra is about to ar­rive on the Mac desk­top too, or­phan­ing a lot of his­tor­i­cal code.

So what rights do we have to con­tinue to get sup­port, and how should we pay for it? Ob­vi­ously, there is no such thing as a free lunch – you buy your car, but you don’t ex­pect to get free ser­vic­ing for it, to­gether with parts, for eter­nity. Those ven­dors that o’er such deals are sim­ply fid­dling the cash­flow fig­ures to make their prod­uct at­trac­tive to the mar­ket­place. No man­u­fac­turer claims that a car has no on­go­ing ser­vic­ing re­quire­ment – un­less, of course, your name is Tesla.

That’s why Mi­crosoft is in such a tricky po­si­tion. It sold a li­cence for Win­dows, but there was no time­out on the li­cence. It was for­ever, in e’ect. Get­ting a cus­tomer to de­cide it’s time to move on isn’t easy. This is es­pe­cially true when the cus­tomer has no real is­sues with the prod­uct. For ex­am­ple, how many peo­ple are still per­fectly chu’ed with that copy of O–ce 2003 they bought half a life­time ago?

Mi­crosoft’s pre­ferred so­lu­tion is to move them to a rolling li­cence: you can pay a few pen­nies un­der eight quid per month and get the whole of the O–ce suite, along with O–ce 365 on­line ser­vices, for your house­hold, in­clud­ing Mac and mo­bile, too. Keep pay­ing the money and you’ll stay up to date.

Busi­nesses have been locked into this through cor­po­rate li­cens­ing for a long time, so maybe it re­ally is time to clar­ify what “buy­ing a li­cence” re­ally means. Even back in 2003 you never bought the prod­uct, just a li­cence to use it.

So here is my rad­i­cal plan. Sam­sung was brave enough to brick its phones that had a ten­dency to ig­nite, prob­a­bly be­cause the lawyers in­sisted that it did so. It’s now time for soft­ware ven­dors to ag­gres­sively look at the rental and up­grade process. If it’s just a li­cence to use, then put a time lock on that li­cence and make the soft­ware stop work­ing af­ter a rea­son­able pe­riod.

This isn’t me ar­gu­ing for soft­ware mak­ers to take their cus­tomers for a ride. I’m talk­ing years, not months, be­fore the soft­ware ceases op­er­at­ing. There must be lots of warn­ings about how an app has been su­per­seded, and how it will shut down to a read­only ver­sion. This el­e­ment is cru­cial: I have long sug­gested that any proper backup pro­gram should have an un­lim­ited use “re­cov­ery mode” avail­able for free down­load from the ven­dor’s web­site in per­pe­tu­ity. In the same way, we should still be able to open .doc files in 2050.

I know this pro­posal won’t sit well with many us. But Mi­crosoft and the rest must be brave enough to set fire to old plat­forms and old soft­ware. We can’t have hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple us­ing vul­ner­a­ble soft­ware for years, sim­ply be­cause they can’t be both­ered to up­grade.

Con­se­quently, we have to ac­cept that good cit­i­zen­ship of the in­ter­net means en­sur­ing our de­vices are kept fully up to date, both the op­er­at­ing sys­tem and ap­pli­ca­tions. Or that we’re out on our own. It’s not hard to make that choice, but it re­ally is about time that we faced it head-on.

“If it’s just a li­cence to use, put a time lock on it and make the soft­ware stop work­ing af­ter a rea­son­able pe­riod”

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