Why we should preserve useless, old software

Preserving history is one of the benefits of open source software.

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Open Source (and Free) Software provides a number of obvious, and often talked about, benefits – such as that whole “freedom” thing that the kids today like so much. But there's one benefit of Open Source software that doesn't get quite as much attention, one that is, in my opinion, just as critical - preserving our software history.

Here’s a hypothetical situation (that actually happens all the time):

A company makes a piece of software. Later, that company either stops working on it or goes out of business (in which case they also, most likely, stop working on it). Flash forward a few years. The operating system that piece of software was built for is no longer supported (and is only run by some guy named “Karl” in Indiana who just refuses to upgrade). And, of course, that cool old piece of software won't even run on newer systems.

Or, even worse, what if that piece of software had some sort of online activation (or online-only functionality)? Dead in the water. That software is now lost to time.

And, sure, maybe there's a newer version that works great. Or there might be a whole new piece of software that works way better than that old pile of junk ever did. But, regardless, not being able to see that old piece of software in action means that we are, effectively, losing a part of our technological history.

Does everyone need (or want) to run a copy of VisiCalc? No. But being able to do so allows us to keep our past... alive. To see how things were in decades past. To learn from them. To enjoy them. This is our common computer history, and it should be cherished and preserved.

Luckily, many software companies are taking the time to release the source code for some of the most historically significant bits of software in the computing world. Even Microsoft.

Just recently, the full source code for MS DOS versions 1.1 and 2.0 were made available, along with Microsoft Word for Windows 1.1. Is there much of a technical benefit to having MS DOS 1.1 source code at this point in time? No. There’s almost no benefit at all, especially with the far more modern (if that word applies here) and GPL-licensed FreeDOS available. But being able to look at and study such an important work is its own reward.

Game companies have been doing this for a while. id Software has released the source code for classics such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Atari opened up the code for a bunch of games for the Atari 7800 (including Ms. Pac Man, Joust, and Robotrom). Heck, the original SimCity was even Open Sourced.

Having the source code available for these games allows intrepid nerds to port these classic games to new platforms and, in some cases, even update them with new features and bug fixes. Because of this, my children (and their children) will be able to experience the joys of playing some of the games that defined their particular genres. They get to see what daddy is talking about when he starts rambling about how “games were better in the good old days” – and then possibly (very likely) make fun of me.

Which is a truly glorious thing.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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