If Software Were Music ...

An odd thought crossed my mind the other day1. While listening to some of the better music to come out of the 80s and 90s, I wondered if there was any software from this time period that I'm still actively using. Given the speed at which technologies change and get rewritten, very little of what we see today is more than a couple of years old. Sure, some of the core components of Windows or Oracle might be a decade or two old, but these would be small components of larger projects, like a modern piece of music with a forever-repeating sample from James Brown.

Will any of the software tools that we use today continue to exist and be useful in 30 years?

Blurry Code

Being useful is important. Unless the planet is plunged into some sort of crisis that has wiped out all digitally-stored information everywhere, there are bound to be backups of software that is in use today sitting on an optical disc at the back of someone's closet. Crazy hypotheticals aside, I considered a semi-realistic one: of the software I use today, which ones could realistically continue to be useful until 2050 without any further updates?

Before continuing, I should state that I am fully entrenched in the world of Linux. While I do have a couple of iOS and Android-powered devices in the house, these sealed appliances with known operational lifespans do not count. I'm simply looking at the tools that I use on Linux.

Thinking through the question, I can think of just a handful of applications that are not part of the default installation of Ubuntu Linux that would still be useful in their current form in 2050:

  • Sublime Text, a pretty decent text editor
  • Typora, my favourite Markdown-friendly text editor
  • Gimp, the Gnu IMage Processing application
  • Glances, a command-line tool to see resource usage

Using the base installation of Ubuntu would mean that I could use the file manager, terminal, and a bunch of other built-in applications that make using the system easier. None of today's browsers would work very well with the web in 30 years, though. Grab a copy of Netscape Navigator 3.5 and try to open a site. Most of them will be an absolute mess. A lot of the other tools that I use would likely not work as expected, such as source control programs, API testing utilities, and database clients. A lot of these things would break because of new security protocols in place. Others might break for different reasons. Thinking back on all the support software I would use when deveoping over the years, none of the applications would work today … except maybe SQL Server Management Studio from around 2000, so long as it's connecting to a database that is also 20 years old2.

Given that we've been writing software for well over half a century, at what point will we start seeing applications — that are not on spacecraft — have operational lives stretching into decades? Will people use and enjoy older applications like a person might enjoy older music? I wonder ….

  1. Well, "odd thoughts" cross the mind all the time. This particular one seemed interesting, though.

  2. SQL Server Management Studio that shipped with SQL Server 2000 on a shiny silver CD — like I still have upstairs — would not connect to a SQL Server 2005 instance until later service packs were released. Even then, it's rare for an older SQL Server client to connect to too new a database engine.