Okay, it wasn't that sudden: Microsoft announced as long ago as 2012 that, as of April of 2014, it was going to end all support of its creaky but still serviceable Windows XP operating system, so it's not like it happened without warning. And strictly speaking, computers running Windows XP didn't die on April 8, 2014: they just became instantly vulnerable to malware, hackers, and others who had been kept somewhat at bay by security upgrades from Microsoft.
As it turns out, this includes well-intentioned network managers such as the ones at my university, who now sniff out any PCs on their network still running Windows XP and simply snip them off the network. But the whole episode has occasioned some thoughts on planned obsolescence, and how different computer technology is from other kinds of technology.
As it turns out, I have a dog in this fight: an old Dell laptop in my research lab that runs a number of applications I use in my research, and its operating system is Windows XP. The applications all run with expensive hardware I have accumulated over the years as funding intermittently became available.
One such item is a high-speed camera that cost about $15K new when I bought it a decade ago with a combination of grant and department money. Another is a $10K spectrometer that I happened into after I met my department chair in the hall one day, and he asked me if I knew of a good way I could help him spend ten thousand dollars real fast.
The software for these items will not run on anything other than Windows XP, and the laptop is so old I don't think I can upgrade the operating system to Windows 8 in any case. I have a little grant right now, but I've obligated most of the money toward other items and there's nothing left for software or hardware upgrades. So what's an impoverished researcher to do?
I wasn't the only person caught with my operating system down on April 8, by the way. One estimate (www.netmarketshare.com) says that about a quarter of all PCs are still running Windows XP here over a month after the drop-dead date, so I'm sure there are millions of computers out there in the same slowly sinking boat that my laptop is in.
In a lot of ways, the end of XP support resembles the old Y2K scare that those of us old enough to be computer-savvy in 2000 can recall. Because programmers dealing with the limited memory in mid-20th-century computers didn't always take into account the possibility that their software might still be running on Jan. 1, 2000, they sometimes wrote dates in a way that would make the software bomb if you tried to keep them running past Dec. 31, 1999. Fortunately, the turn of the century was highly predictable, and despite certain fringe elements who predicted a digital Armageddon, nearly all software had been successfully upgraded by New Year's Day on 2000, and the big Y2K scare turned out to be a bust.
Similarly, judging from the cricket-filled silence on the Internet concerning any dire consequences of the end of XP support after April 8, I think things have not turned out to be as bad as some people thought. Still, I can't connect my PC laptop to the internet without getting it squelched by IT support now, and if anything goes wrong with any of the software or hardware it runs, I may find myself up a creek.
Those involved in the computer and software industries rarely think in terms of indefinitely lengthy stretches of time, although I will give Microsoft credit for announcing the end of XP support so far in advance, and sticking to their commitment. Every design of an engineered product is an act of faith: the designer rarely knows exactly who will use the design, how they will benefit, or how long the design will be useful.
The business model of software companies is a constant scramble to issue upgrades and new products, and in a competitive global economy, it can't very well be otherwise. But in the rare cases that a thing shows unexpected fruitful longevity, it seems that there is a kind of nobility or merit attached to that fact that most engineers rarely recognize, having been trained in the philosophy of "old = bad, new = good" from their college days.
I recall the story of a mechanical animation stand and camera that begin its existence back in the 1920s, and was used to make some of the earliest animated cartoons. The same stand was still in use in the late 1990s for commercial film production, because the mechanical standards of 35-mm film had not changed in all that time.
Animation stands are junk now, rendered that way by the advent of computer-generated images (CGI). And motion-picture production companies that have switched to all-digital production find that it costs them a bundle simply to keep a movie on the shelf, because all the software and memory standards associated with the huge pile of digital information that goes into the movie are constantly changing, and it's a full-time job for several people just to make sure that the movie is still in shape to be played from month to month.
It brings to mind the words of the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's story Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There: "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
Those who have the resources to run twice as fast have long since upgraded their old PCs (or not so old PCs) to Windows 7 or 8 or 13 or whatever the latest version is, and will continue to keep up with the times. And those of us who haven't, will just have to deal with the situation any way we can.
Sources: The online journal Computerworld carried a debate as long ago as December 2012 at http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9234316/Experts_question_Microsoft_s_decision_to_retire_XP in which experts differed as to whether Microsoft would really stick to their announced deadline, as they in fact did. Some good advice to those who can't afford upgrading from Windows XP appeared in PC Pro's online edition at http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/387022/what-to-do-if-you-re-still-on-windows-xp-should-i-upgrade-from-windows-xp. The statistic about the percentage of PCs running Windows XP is available at http://www.netmarketshare.com/operating-system-market-share.aspx.
This column originally appeared on the Engineering Ethics blog, you can find it by visiting http://engineeringethicsblog.blogspot.com/.