Politics & Policy

Older Is Better

Software conservatives have a home in Oldversion.com.

America is a lot like a computer. It’s powerful, it’s made up of myriad complex components, and it is considered scary and threatening by those who don’t understand how it works. It is also upgradeable in the face of change and is able to foster great diversity, from C to shining C++.

At the most fundamental level, almost everyone agrees that this computer should run an operating system called representative democracy. Yes, there will always be those on the margins who quibble even with this decision–your sundry anarchists, fascists, and Linux users. But for the vast majority of Americans, both Democrat and Republican, the chosen operating system is not a point of contention.

But an operating system alone does not make for a very functional computer or country. To serve the needs of its citizens, hundreds of programs must be implemented to handle the end-user’s specific needs and wants. And here’s where the partisan divide exists. The question of which programs best serve our needs is what makes our democracy function. It is for the voters to decide whether it’s more important to have a strong firewall and virus-protection system or a program that redistributes your excess CPU cycles to other works projects.

In the real world of computers (as opposed to the tenuously stretched metaphorical world), there too exists an intellectual battle between conservatives and progressives. Brand-new programs come out all the time, and for that we are all thankful. But there is also the tendency to constantly revamp existing programs, issuing newer versions, often without cause. It is the aim of the software conservatives to preserve existing programs that work just fine in the face of those that would change things unnecessarily in the name of progress.

These software conservatives have a champion and a home in Oldversion.com, a website devoted to saving and hosting older versions of commonly used programs. What they do is completely legal; these are not the programs that you buy in a store, but rather the free software utilities that we all use in the course of our daily computing: the media players, Internet tools, and messaging programs that have become all but indispensable. Oldversion is there to conserve the earlier versions of these programs because, as their slogan says, “Newer is not always better.”

The site’s founders list four explicit goals in hosting these programs:

‐”To discourage the use of spyware by software companies” and to “show the industry your dissatisfaction with these types of business practices.” Putting aside serious concerns relating to privacy rights, spyware and adware are especially noxious because they profess to collect personal information about you in order to give you more of what you want. But in the end, the only ones who really benefit are the software companies. Software conservatives believe that you know what you want better than the software companies. Some might suggest suing these software companies until they stop using spyware, but using older, non-spyware-laden versions of programs is a wonderful, legal, free-market solution to this problem. It places the responsibility for change in the hands of the user, not activist judges.

‐To “bridge the digital divide” and help users who can’t continuously upgrade their computers. Unfortunately, the trend in software has been to take what are extremely simple programs and weigh them down with more pork than the omnibus-spending bill.

For instance, Windows Media Player 6.4 is a completely functional, if somewhat spartan, program. But subsequent versions of Media Player have added all kinds of features, and as a result, people with slower computers simply can’t run the new software. Software companies generally don’t offer their older versions, and that’s where Oldversion steps in. The site is a model of compassionate conservatism, seeking to help those who want to help themselves. No computer user should be left behind.

‐Freedom of choice. The site says, “To allow the software developer to dictate which version of their product one can use is to give up one’s rights.” John Locke couldn’t have said it better himself.

‐Preservation of the past. There is so much that can be gained from studying our forebears. Software development is the same way. Who knows what insights a developer could glean from an old version of America Online or from abandoned file-sharing networks like CuteMX and Scour? If not for Oldversion, we might never find out.

The last reason, left implicit and unwritten, is that some older programs are just better. People seek out this software not out of a sense of nostalgia, but because certain older versions really do function better than their newer iterations. So, if you choose, continue using older, more stable versions of other common utilities, like Acrobat Reader, AOL Instant Messenger, and RealPlayer. And make sure to say thanks to Oldversion. Because in America the bootable, they’re the ones standing athwart software development yelling “Stop!”

Rami Genauer is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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