Software That Lasts

The Cloud Problem

When your data only exists in software that you don’t host yourself it is no longer yours. It can disappear at any moment. Its future is dependent upon a company’s continued profits and interests.

Imagine you’ve been building up a knowledge base for two years, but you fall on “hard times”. Maybe you can’t afford it. Maybe something happened and you’re literally unable to (accidents, medical issues, legal restrictions). What happens to all that data?

If you’re lucky the site has a good export feature, and you have the opportunity to use it, before its too late.

You can’t rely on a company’s VC money continuing to last. They might get bought and end their “incredible journey”.  They may simply loose interest in the product.

If you’ve put years worth of effort into it. It would be a full time job to recreate it in another system. So, really you’re screwed.

The Local Problem

When the software lives locally, on your phone, or on your desktop, the situation a bit better. It should continue to work until your Operating System eventually upgrades enough to break it. If you know a breaking update is coming you could stop upgrading your device… forever. This problem is guaranteed to happen for every piece of unmaintained software.

The Solution

There are two parts to the solution.

The Data Solution

Software that manages text (documents, spreadsheets, etc) must be stored natively in a human readable, text format. You must be able to open up its files with a text editor, and with some motivation, be able to make sense of them.

Image and video data is harder, but the formats are generally public so we should be able to read them in 40 years.

Anything with DRM is guaranteed to stop working.

The Software Solution

The software must be open source. I don’t say this as an open source zealot. No company lasts forever. This is especially true for technology companies. Sooner or later, every single piece of proprietary software will die. The question is will it die before, or after you do. This sounds dramatic, but it’s actually a very real consideration. All proprietary software will eventually be abandoned. All of its creators will die.

If you’re going to put data into a piece of software, and you want that data to last for years, it must be open source software. You don’t need to be able to maintain it, but anyone who cares about it needs to have that option. In the worst case scenario, you will always be able to pay someone to make it work with your current computer.

But, being open source isn’t enough. Imagine, for example, that the world moves on from MS Word, and Microsoft decides to open source it. It’s an incredibly large and complex codebase. Many pieces are tied to the version of the operating system they were written for. It’s also, probably not documented very well internally. To keep MS Word alive and useful for the next 40 years will require a large team, working countless hours. A future government that really wants to read their digital archives, might be able to fund this. It’s not going to help normal mortals.

The software needs to be open source, documented, and reasonably focused in its scope. It must be something that a handful of dedicated fans can keep alive.

The considerations needed to design software that will last 40 years is another post entirely.

Choosing Well

For now I want you to consider a some things about the software choices you are making:

  • Will my livelihood be affected if the the developers who make this die, or suddenly kill this product?
  • If I keep using this, will I loose years of data that I care about when the developers die, or go out of business?
    • Can I export my data?
    • If so, would it be in a format I could do something with? For example: PDFs are nice, but they’re terrible for transferring data from one piece of software to another. They’re also annoying to extract data from.
  • If I suddenly become poor, or otherwise unable to pay my bills, will I loose years of data I care about?
    • Note that many sites will delete your data to save space if you stop paying.
  • If I forget my password, or no longer have an old email address, will I loose years of data I care about?