The fragility of software

I wrote this two years ago and for some reason never published it:

Software is taking over our lives – the way we communicate, learn, play, work, and shop. I’m both thrilled and worried about that. Thrilled because now that we’ve made the mind-boggling investment of putting computers onto every desk and into every pocket and connected them all via the internet, we can build and release infinite amounts of software much more cheaply and quickly than we can build pretty much anything else. And to my delight, the original hippie dream of the technologists who envisioned all of this back in the 1960s and 1970s has largely survived the attempts of businesses and governments to take control: Our various technology platforms, in particular the internet, are largely free, open, and universally accessible to anyone who wants to build a piece of software and send it out to the world. So why am I worried? For all its benefits, software is amazingly fragile. From a creator’s point of view, it requires almost constant maintenance for it to continue to work. The pieces of software I personally run right now – a web browser, email client, a blog, etc – are between a few days and a few months old. Most of the software I ran last year or the year before no longer works, and more crucially, some of the things I created using those older pieces of software stopped working along with it. I have notebooks from grade school sitting in a closet next to me. I can pick them up and they work just fine, the same as they did 30 years ago. Yet keeping my digital documents working requires constant maintenance, backing up, and transferring to new formats, or they simply become defunct.

There’s a concept of technical debt inside software companies. It means that poor software design choices upfront lead to major maintenance hassles down the road. As software takes over our lives, we should think about how to minimize technical debt not just in companies but at a societal level, to help avoid some major risks and headaches in the coming decades.

Published by

Toni Schneider

Partner at True Ventures. Team lead at Automattic. Advisor at Atipica, Bandcamp, Handshake, Hatch Baby, Madefire, Renovo Motors, and Tend.ai.

5 thoughts on “The fragility of software”

  1. My parents are going through the manifestation of this right now: They’ve got a 10+ year old desktop machine with some files they’d like to save. I helped them power it up on Sunday, and to our delight, it worked! Soon after, we discovered that we *don’t have a mouse for it*. We have to go find a ps/2 mouse and keyboard just to use it, as it has no USB ports.

    Once we do get it running, there’s the question of filetypes. This is a machine running os 9 (I think?), which was probably last powered on 10 years ago. What were they using to write then? What format were those files saved in? We’ll find out, and hope that we can recover them into something more modern.

    I think we’ve been lured into complacency in some regards. Knowing what machine your files are physically on feels like such a victory over trying to chase down individual, physical letters or pictures, that we assume they’re safe and ignore them.

  2. You wrote:

    software is amazingly fragile. From a creator’s point of view, it requires almost constant maintenance for it to continue to work. The pieces of software I personally run right now – a web browser, email client, a blog, etc – are between a few days and a few months old. Most of the software I ran last year or the year before no longer works,

    I don’t know Toni, I think you are deliberately spending too much time on the cutting edge (and yes the blade is sharp). My OS is 5 years old and runs beautifully (Snow Leopard). My preferred web browser is Safari 5 with SafariStand. Some sites have stopped working well in Safari 5 so I have to keep at least latest Firefox on hand.

    Although it’s true, Google have managed to take Chromium from ultrafast privacy respecting browser to overloaded, fragile spyware in that time period.

    I would agree that WordPress does seem to manage to constantly break and be out of date. I’d say that’s more a design philosophy than intrinsic to well-coded software.

    As Jay mentions, Windows XP managed to build and run most everything for almost fifteen years. Indeed, XP is still in service in critical and military infrastructure (albeit with private paid updates at this point).

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