Tim O’Reilly: What does it say about software that so many people want to go back to old version?

Tim O’Reilly recently posed an interesting question on Twitter. What does it say about software that so many people want to go back to the old version? Let me make a confession. I’m not a software aficionado by any means. I started this site back in 2001 because I thought it had a great chance to become a hit and there was nothing like it on the Internet at the time. It did become a hit. Within three months, a New York Times columnist reached out for a story, Kevin Rose offered to buy the site for $10,000 and suddenly I mattered a lot more in the Internet world. Life was good. Then I went to high school (I was still in middle school when the site first launched) and life sucked again.

Despite not being a software aficionado, running this site for the last decade has taught me a thing or two. For one, it’s easier to get a second date if you tell a woman “I run an Internet company” vs. “I run an Internet web site.” ;) . Also:

1)      Version updates for the sake of interface changes are RISKY.

Remember when AIM Triton was released and the entire interface of AIM was redone? Or how about the release of Winamp 3 and its disgustingly non-classical default interface? Office 2007? Windows 8? (I have not installed it yet). Tons of things can go wrong. New bugs, people unsure of how to complete basic tasks, etc.

Cyrus Farivar recently mentioned in an interview:

“An overriding principle would be that don’t let design get in the way of functionality. In other words, don’t just do design changes for the sake of doing them.”

Yet, publishers seem to do that all the time. Hell, even I’m guilty of this with this very site. It’s so tempting, especially when you have the job title and responsibility to continually innovate and change things up. I understand the drive to create something new, to switch things up, but if you’ve got something that works – don’t reinvent your own wheel, otherwise you may end up tripping over it and falling on your face.

2)      Publishers who tweak their software without listening to user feedback can run themselves into the ground.

Newer versions are useful. There I said it. I never argued otherwise. After all, the slogan of the site is “newer is not always better,” not “older is always better.” New versions can fix bugs, add requested features, the UI can be more intuitive and so forth. Yet, software publishers who do not communicate with their customers and are too hard-pressed and proud to go back on a previous decision are not following a winning strategy.

TweetDeck AIR version (before Twitter’s acquisition) is a great example. Twitter, why won’t you listen to all the griping souls?

3)      Developing for backward compatibility is challenging, so older versions are always necessary.

I started this site because the new version of Napster used 100% of my CPU power back in 2001. I couldn’t download any more Russian music on my 56K, what was I to do?

Start www.oldversion.com

4)      Additional ‘bloat,’ monetizing mechanisms can hurt your business.

I’m guilty of this. This site suffered a huge hit in January when Google demoted me for having all 3 ads above the fold (ironically, this is what their AdSense team recommended I do but I digress). I lost a lot of traffic. It’s tempting when it seems like such easy money. Avoid the temptation. It will only lead to unhappy customers seeking to downgrade (or switch to competitors).

5)      It’s hard to run a software company.

If you run a software company (or any company, for that matter), my hat goes off (I’m not wearing a hat). It’s hard. How do you balance pressure for increased revenues with your customers needs? How do you make decisions that serve your customers and the board (hint: your board’s interests should be aligned with your customers)?

How do you deal with all the people whining about a new release that your team has spent years working on? How do you decide to scrape something that you’ve invested millions of dollars into developing?

I’m grateful I don’t have to make these decisions! All I can suggest is that you listen to your core users and send us some money (we will fix something for sure if you send us some money).

So surely the existence of this site must say something about people as well:

1)      People are creatures of habit.

Peter Hershberg tweeted: “Among other things, it says that people hate change.” He later added that people update their software because they are “unaware of how much they hate change.” Jeffrey Mershon offered:sometimes new version truly is worse, but we are creatures of habit, and resist change.”

I tend to agree with Jeff (although maybe I should agree with Peter because he has more Twitter followers). We resist change, but we don’t necessarily hate it. Some people are more open to it than others, sure, but if we hate change so much then there’s no way that Obama could have touted change as his whole campaign and won.

If we’ve worked with Excel for 15 years and Microsoft suddenly updates all the keyboard shortcuts we’ve used and changes the menus around, we may have some feelings about it.

2)      People’s expectations are just as important as the software they are using.

People get upset, angry and frustrated when their expectations are not met. This applies as much to relationships as it does to software.

3)      People like free stuff.

Some of the software downloaded on oldversion.com are the freeware versions of a certain release. Example: PowerArchiver. The most downloaded version is 6.1 because it was released under the Freeware license.

4)      People value archives, legacy and history.

Old versions are cultural artifacts. Imagine you find a floppy disk stuck between the rusty pages of an old family heirloom. How do you find the software that is able to make sense of that data?

5)      Nostalgia can be fun.

I like to install old software on my Windows 98 VirtualBox and watch the status indicator tell me how much hard drive space I have left as I’m installing. It brings me back. Heck, apparently some people argue that Windows 98 is a great solution for audio editing. (see comments)

So, Tim O’Reilly – thanks for inspiring this discussion!

Our dear users: please feel free to comment below: what do you think it says about software (and people) that so many people want to revert to the older version?

Alexander Levine is the founder of OldVersion.com. He started the site in 2001 after noticing that the new version of Napster used up all his system resources. You can follow his personal Twitter at @avlevine

10 Comments on "Tim O’Reilly: What does it say about software that so many people want to go back to old version?"

  1. Steph says:

    I guess I have to put my 2 cents in here. Many years ago (Windows 95 or before), I started using Quicken to keep track of my finances. I understand that software developers have to update their product to keep up with new OS’s – I truly get that. But Intuit and Corel are notorious for putting out a new version of whatever it is every year! Most are no upgrades either so you have to buy an entirely new piece of software at great expense (look at QuickBooks, for example). To me, this is just a way to make money for the software companies. I use Paint Shop Pro and have since version 3. As you may know, Jasc made it originally then sold the product to Corel. Ever since then, Corel has put out a new version every year and it is so buggy that I have found it’s best to wait at least 6 months before even considering buying it. I have currently PSP7, PSP9 and PSPX3. There is already X4 out and I refuse to upgrade. There are a few new bells and whistles but nothing that makes me want to shell out $49 for the upgrade. This applies to WordPerfect too. Every year a new version! I did have to upgrade WordPerfect once I had a computer with Windows 7 for compatibility but I have no reason or use for higher versions. Intuit is the same way and, again, I had to upgrade my Quicken when I got this computer with Windows 7 on it. There have been at least 2 new versions of all of the above since I got this computer which is 2 years old! To me, it smacks of greed, first of all. Second, I would love it if they’d take the time to put out a product that doesn’t require a 75mb service pack within 6 months! Thank you for letting me vent. :)

  2. C.J. Moran says:

    Lots of nails hit right on the heads here. One thought I should like to make is that the software industry is becoming increasingly infected by the plague of amateurishness.

    The perfect example of this is Firefox. I have started to get messages from sites telling me that I’m using an outdated browser and suggesting that I should upgrade. So far as I can tell, my browser is about eighteen months old but it is v3.6; according to something I read yesterday, Firefox is now on v14. That works out at about six weeks per major release. Now, no IT professional would ever imagine that you can produce and test a major version of any significant piece of software in a few weeks. You can spend six weeks arguing over whether the first few bugs are bugs at all (I know, I once had to do the initial testing on a reinsurance database; never again!)

    I also use OpenOffice in version 3.2. This was the last version before Oracle b*gg*r*d everything up. I write novels; this necessitates large WP files; it is often necessary to reprint one or a few pages from within the document. Hence the “pages” option in the print dialogue box. Up to v3.2, this defaulted to the page that the user was on; this made sense, since this was always most likely the page you wanted. In 25 years, I have used a good many other WPs and they all defaulted to the same thing. Then in v3.3 Oracle changed OpenOffice to default to the entire document. Why? No one will EVER want that; if you want to print the whole document you’ll just select the “print document” option in the first place. So? Why change from something that is the industry standard and does something useful to something that isn’t and doesn’t? I don’t know; perhaps it is another manifestation of the narcissism that leads software houses that are incapable of grasping the concept of “backwards compatibility” by labeling Firefox add-ons, for example, as incompatible with their new version when the sane man can see that it is the new version that is incompatible with the pre-existing add-ons.

    Another point is that, in the past, both Firefox and OpenOffice allowed you to install the new version alongside the old. This meant you could test the new version before discarding the old. With v4 Firefox and v3.3 Openoffice, the new versions overwrote the old. Since neither version achieved the stability of a man with Parkinson’s balancing on a pitchfork in a Richter 8 earthquake and a simultaneous F5 tornado, this was less than ideal, especially when there was no operable uninstall program. I had to do an OS reinstall before I could use the old (working) versions again.

    The last couple of years has been a series of retrograde steps and a feeling that we are being increasingly bullied by the likes of Flickr, Yahoo et alii to embrace the new software, on pain of being electronically ostracized.

    I first worked with PCs when the PC wasn’t even the industry standard but even then, I had several years of working life behind me. I knew how at least some things worked and, accordingly, I looked at the computer in the light of how it fitted into the “real” world. For many years, all the IT professionals I knew were like that. When I programmed, I knew what I was trying to achieve and I knew in real-world terms. These days, it seems, you leave school,you go to college, get a diploma by passing a course written by someone who, if he were any good, would be out there making much more money doing the job, and join come company thinking you’re oh so clever but all you really know is how to code; and you never learn anything else. The result is that many programmers clearly have no grasp of their place in the scheme of things or how their products are supposed to fit into the real world. They are like engineers building the Forth Bridge – but building it in the middle of the Sahara desert. The IT professional understands that the program is only as good as the service it provides the user. He understands the necessity of listening to the user; change what needs changing; if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Above all, he understands the paramount necessity of testing, testing and more testing. With out such understanding, for all his diplomas, the modern IT bod is just a hobbyist.

    What is the answer? I’m not sure there is one. The programmers seem to be becoming ever more detached from reality and there doesn’t seem to be any form of ECT that we can use. All we can do is keep hold of our old programs and keep the old computers they run on limping along as long as we can. Perhaps, one day, some judge will wake up to the point that computer software is a commercial product, just like every other, and that the “no liability” disclaimers don’t trump Acts of Parliament/Congress.

  3. Henry5400 says:

    Facebook’s Timeline is another example — smart that they backed off their plan to totally impose it upon users. But they are still being very persistent at pushing this utterly useless non-intuitive layout.

    • connjohn says:

      Not true any more. I resisted the change, then it automatically changed my option. I HATE timeline — but there are no longer options for users to choose their own preference. I think the main reasons many programs change — easier to collect your information. That’s never in the specs.

  4. Dave Simpson says:

    I left ‘Automatic Updates’ on and hit disaster after disaster. Latest was Picasa wouldn’t work anymore, and all the Picasa downloads came up with the same message. I had to manually get rid of DirectX, everything I could, by ‘Shift Delete”, as well as everything of Picasa that I could delete. My Pictures are still intact. Not the web albums. I never had this problem with Picasa 2.7 , so I’ve gone back there.
    Picasa 3.8 killed it, and 3.9 doesn’t install necessary drivers, relying on those that were destroyed on the Windows XP SP2 system by the XP SP3 update that killed a lot of my old programs. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!”

  5. Tim Zurwellen says:

    Hallo,
    I am so happy that sites like this exist. I have a pentium computer with win3.1x and DOS. Its my primary computer, but I have to use a maschiene with Winxp to access your site. Too bad there is not a olderversion of oldversion.com. I cannot access it under windows for workgroups anymore.
    Too bad people dont realize that you can still do almost 80% of everything with win3.1x I can chat using AIM and YAHOO and mIRC lets me communicate with people on Skype and MSN. I can even use a webcam in win3.1x Its not as fast as what we have today but its still something! With netscape and opera surfing on FB is also possible.

    Eventhough I cant access the newer version of you site, thanks for providing so many useful applications for me over the years.

    -Tim Zurwellen,
    From Bremen Germany

  6. Paul says:

    Firefox changed the way they update their version numbers, probably to match Google Chrome’s high version number. (And we would probably agree that this is an amateurish reason.) If Firefox always had this method of upping the version, they’d now have a version number in the hundreds.

    By contrast, Java is now at Version 1.7, with each version having many Builds.

  7. Red Truc says:

    Yo y’all!
    My lament is with Mac (oh don’t let this get back to them, ‘cus I really love my Mac) lol
    My focus is freehand drawing and assembling text and my graphics to create brochures, my website, flyers etc. I have been using Mac’s Clarisworks for about 10 years to do this. I absolutely and totally love the functionality of this program. I am using a G4 iMac. I have been considering upgrading to the newest Mac, mainly because of access to newer sites which are using IE9, which completely blocks my G4 out, but, was told Clarisworks does not work on the new Mac and the manufacturers have scrapped it. This is one of the dumbest changes ever. And no one is replacing it or upgrading it. Photoshop does not do what I do, nor do any other graphics programs. Microsoft’s graphics programs are clumsy, totally un-intuitive and frustrating to the max.
    I suggest we assemble a “flash-mob” and descend on whoever used to manufacture Clarisworks and sing Koombiya and Michael Row the Boat Ashore, in shifts, until they crack and promise with tears in their eyes to bring back our beloved Clarisworks…………. All’s fair in love and graphics.
    Sincerely
    Red

  8. Sudarshan says:

    Nice thoughts. I am glad you presented both sides of the coin: Developers and Users.
    Anyway, I came back to this site after a long time and I do not like the new interface, just saying :)
    Old layout was simple and there is something missing from the site which used to make software easy to find, I can’t exactly remember what it was though.

  9. Martyn Green says:

    I couldn’t help agreeing with C.J. Moran — I feel the same about other software programmes (particularly Skype, which is why I came here) — but my pet peeve right now is not a downloadable programme as such, but a service: Gmail, which I more or less had to use extensively this summer when on holiday, and using my Android mobile to check my emails.

    Coming from Google, of course, they make it easiest to use Gmail, as it is “built-in”, and can be checked at any moment when there is a open wifi available. Useful, yes — but why oh why does ONLY Google buck the established industry “standard” and put the latest email at the BOTTOM of all the emails on that topic??

    Everyone else since the year dot (which, for me, goes back to 1984, when I got my first Epson PX-8 “notebook” — although they weren’t called notebooks then) although it WAS another 11 years before I got “proper” emails with Compuserve (before then I had to use Bulletin Boards to forward emails) — anyway, ever since the 90′s, the latest response to an email has been put at the TOP. But Google, in it’s infinite wisdom, puts the latest reply at the BOTTOM.

    As I wasn’t used to this, I would open an email to find apparently that there was no response! (Moreover, you have to specially click on “Edit Subject” to put a different title on the email — you don’t see it when starting a reply.) Only after finding a couple like that did I go down the very bottom of the file…. Okay, you do have to open the (old) messages at the top to see them — but naturally I did, as I didn’t want to “miss anything” .

    Anyway, my beef is that while it makes sense chronologically, as no other email client does that, it is now counter-intuitive — if it was going to be done that way, it should have been done 20 years ago. It is too late to change it now.

    But as I am sure Google is too big (for it’s boots) it is highly unlikely to change things just because “a few people” like me winge about it. So, if they won’t change — I’ll have to. I’ll stick to my Eudora when at home, and Hotmail when travelling.

    “You can’t fight City Hall”, true — but you can elect to go around them.

    m.g.

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