Oldies but Goodies

This morning BBEdit reminded me it was time to upgrade to version 11, but what really caught my eye was the copyright notice in the dialog box:

Copyright Barebones Software 1992-2015.

Has it really been more than 20 years since those early freeware versions on System 7? What is it about text editors that enables them to last so long? emacs and vi are even older.

This got me thinking. What software am I still using today that I was using 20 or more years ago?

In the Windows and Mac worlds, almost nothing. The operating systems have changed completely and aren’t remotely the same. Photoshop and Illustrator, I suppose, have a continuous history going back that far; and would be recognizable to a time traveling graphic designer from 1990. Adobe Acrobat is almost that old. QuarkXPress still exists, though PageMaker is dead. The Microsoft Office suite of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is still going strong, though like the operating systems it runs on, it’s been rewritten and revised so much that little other than the brand name survives.

The Unix world has been kinder to its senior citizens (though as with Windows and Mac the operating system itself has changed out from under them). gcc is still the compiler of choice. Most of the other gnu tools are shipped with every Linux distro. My day job recently launched a LaTeX project of all things. If you told me back in my undergraduate days that I’d be fighting with LaTeX for the next 30 years, it might have convinced me to drop physics and take the MCATs. It’s scary to think I might retire before LaTeX does.

Scientific software has also lasted. Mathematica goes back to 1988, Maple and Matlab even further. SPSS and SAS are still going strong though R and Python are the choice of a new generation of statisticians. I’ve never used AutoCad, but it keeps chugging right along.

How much of today’s software will still be relevant 25 years from now? I don’t expect to still be using Microsoft Office in 2040. Photoshop and Ilustrator could go the way of Persuasion, Freehand, and PageMaker. I hate to admit it, but LaTeX will probably still be confounding graduate students for decades to come. TextMate may join emacs and BBEdit in the ranks of editors burned into programmers’ muscle memory. If Adobe doesn’t kill the golden goose with more annual licensing shenanigans, Lightroom could outlast Photoshop.

Nonetheless, most of the software I use day to day (web browsers, eReaders, IDEs, etc.) is really just a display mechanism for data in a standard format and could be replaced by something better tomorrow. If the data lasts, the software is replaceable. And that is as it should be.

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