As hard as it is to preserve vintage computer hardware, software is even harder.
If an iBook’s hard drive implodes, I can knock out the repair myself.
I have a bunch of old Apple hardware. Most of it still works, but if my Macintosh SE blows a capacitor, I can (more than likely) have it repaired by someone more skilled than I am.
If one of my old notebooks has screen failure, the problem may prove too difficult or expensive to repair. Spare parts are harder and harder to come by as time goes on.
There will be a day where some of my old machines will stop working. There will be a day where none of them work anymore.
As sad as that will be from a hardware perspective, it’s devastating in terms of preserving software. Old operating systems are sealed inside these machines. A dead Mac is really just a beige — or Bondi Blue — sarcophagus for the software stranded on its internal disk.
Granted, there are a few ways to emulate the classic Mac OS today. What happens when those projects aren’t updated anymore or a change to macOS prevents them from running? It’s not hard to imagine a day when the only way people interact with something like System 7 is through screenshots.
The story is even gloomier when it comes to rarer operating systems or individual software titles. There are countless programs that have already slipped away, just in the Apple ecosystem. For platforms like BeOS or even NeXTSTEP, the effect is far worse.
The vast majority of people will never need to run operating systems like Mac OS X Server 1.0 or older software titles like MacPaint. As a self-proclaimed Apple historian, I am interested in keeping it accessible.
Deep inside, I know it’s a losing battle.
I believe that to understand where we are and where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been. That includes the technology we use. If it’s true that one day we all return to dust, it applies to our computers and their software, too.
(Don’t miss Steve Jobs talking about this subject in a 1994 interview.)
A Modern Example of Software Rot
Lest you think software rot is something that just affects operating systems and programs than ran on beige computers with weird names from the 90s, let’s look at the free iPhone case program that was announced in 2010 as a part of Antennagate.
The company released a free app customers had to use to order their free case.
The app still runs today, as pointed out by Parker Lyman, who sent me these screenshots:
As this app runs on today’s iOS, I imagine it’s pretty simple. However, it is completely broken now that Apple has removed whatever infrastructure the app depended on. Without the server it is looking for, the app is just a shell.
This little app is not much more than a footnote in the iPhone 4’s story, but it’s already almost gone, just six years later. I think it’s a good example of how modern
software apps are at just as much risk as old ones of becoming nothing more than a memory.