Web Informant #324, 14 April 2003: Oldest software, redux




Earlier this month, I described a friend of mine who was responsible for a corporate network notable for its aging applications infrastructure. (See WI #322). At the end of the column I proposed a contest and asked you all to send in your own entries to qualify for the "oldest living software" application. Needless to say, I got some great entries. (And they keep coming in as a result of being on Slashdot.) After enlisting my VARBusiness colleague Scott Gormley as a co-judge, I can now announce the winners.


Before I do, I should point out three Web sites that might be of interest to those of you that are exploring the ancient era of our industry. Dell in fact held its own oldest existing hardware contest a few years ago and uncovered a vintage Altair from 1976 that was since donated to The Computer Museum.


Two other Web sites are digibarn.com and oldversions.com. The former is Bruce Damer's one-man computer museum, while the latter maintains links to older versions of some common software tools that may be preferred to the bloatware and feature-rich upgrades that have followed them.


Okay, enough scene-setting. The winner in my little contest is a general ledger accounting program that has been in use for nearly 25 years and was originally written for the Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1978 and was mass-marketed in 1979. I corresponded with the developer, Irwin Taranto, and he told me "In the years prior to IBM PC intro in September 1981, thousands of copies were sold. We worked closely with Adam Osborne in those days. I was sad to hear of his demise." I was contacted by one of his customers, Telford Cruikshank Jr. the owner of Telfords Chevrolet in Clay WV. Cruikshank claimed he had the 1978 vintage, but Taranto pulled his file (how many of us still have business records going back that far) and told me that he originally purchased the software in February 1985 for the classic two-floppy IBM PC. The Chevy dealer was looking to upgrade his Windows 95 machine to XP. I asked Taranto if he still supports his software and he told me, "We stopped upgrading and marketing right after the y2k upgrades. The major investment that would have been required was not desirable for someone collecting Social Security. I don't know how many actual users we have of the accounting software, not many I am sure. But since the company telephone number is no longer in service, nor the address, it takes some searching to find me. Nevertheless, we get an occasional email from a user, mostly from a rural community, such as the email from Telford Chevrolet. We also sold several turn-key point-of-sale accounting systems in 1995 based on UNIX and two of these are still running."  Irwin will be getting my check for $25, to help supplement his SSI from the government next month.


But I had so many other good entries I also want to share them with you. In second place is this entry from Chuck Curtis. He writes "My office is still using Lotus 123R3 for DOS. I have it installed on about 150 laptops and PC's." For those of you that aren't familiar with this product, it dates back to just 1991. Why is he still using this software? "The basic Lotus spreadsheet file was designed by Health Care Financing Administration (now The Center for Medicare Medicaid Services) for our medical facility inspectors to record the time spent on various parts of the inspection, to include travel time. I have to load this to each new laptop or PC that comes in.  I have asked if it would be possible to convert the spreadsheets to a new application such as Excel. However, this isn't possible, as the mainframe that the files are uploaded to cannot accept any of the newer applications spreadsheets, because of hidden characters and codes. Needless to say, you have to remain very proficient at using the keyboard (forward slash, arrow) vs. a mouse." Thanks to Chuck for this entry: I still own a copy of the version 1A and remember how excited I was building those early spreadsheets back in the 1980s. I liked this entry because of the number of clients running it still, even though it is relatively recent compared to some of the other nominations submitted. (I didn't say that I would judge strictly on the vintage, now did I?)


In third place is a version of data entry software called RODE/PC that was first developed in 1984. Patrick Benson submitted these details: "We support a DOS 2.0 version of RODE/PC and managed to run it on XP.  It was initially deployed in 1985 and the applications have not been substantially changed since then. The product is used for heads down data entry, 82,000 transactions per month from one large department and 4,000 per month from others.  It works as well as any mature key-disk application should, and we continue to use it because it works. In mid to large firms there tends to be a need for central data entry of tables, budget spreads, journal vouchers and sensitive transactions, and this app works well for that type of work." I contacted the original developer Bill Ackerman and he sent me the following note: "RODE/PC never really changed hands. A joint development venture between DPX and a Swedish company, RODE/PC has always stayed with me as we grew the company and evolved through several legal entities. The development, marketing, and support has been with same individuals since 1984." Again, very impressive chain of custody for an application.


But the PC-based products really can't hold a candle to their mainframe cousins, some of which date back to the dawn of time. Here are a couple of entries that have to do with mainframes that I liked:


Bob Schaefer wrote that "We currently have some parts of our G/L system that are from the mid 60's. These are part of the original package from McCormick & Dodge that was purchased to run on an IBM 360 model 20. They have seen changes over the years but the users will not let us get rid of them. We have carried these programs through multiple computer hardware upgrades. Even when we replaced the ERP systems (several times) we have to write conversion programs to get the data "just so" to keep these monoliths going." Schaefer's mainframe apps aren't the only aging part of his computing network. He also has four or five desktops running DOS 3.1 to run a terminal emulation program from ANDREW to drive printers that date back to the early 1990s.


Shelley Giles also sent in an entry for mainframe software that was already up and running when he began working for his employer back in 1971. (How many of us can claim that kind of tenure?) He writes: "The only documentation I know about is about a tenth generation copy of handwritten notes that has existed since at least Oct. 1971. The program, called DATAMOD, was acquired from a computer company in Darmstadt, West Germany. This 'grep-like' program for scanning, selecting, and reformatting data is used many times daily in the updating of databases. The sale of information in these databases is a $100+ million per year business. We still have one person who knows how to write control statements for it, and it has not been necessary to write or modify any control statements since approx. 1979."


Right up there with the durability of mainframe applications is Novell applications. I received several entries, all testifying to the longevity of Novell's Netware and Groupwise product lines, and some cited examples even further back in time than my friend quoted in my column.


Kevin Lee wrote in: "We are a small UK based company and although we produce the very latest in PLC controlled switchgear and SCADA systems, our company still uses two ancient file servers and server software (HP 486DX66 file server with 25 user versions of Novell Netware 3.2)."


One of the entries was still using a GroupWise 4.1 Fax Gateway that was installed sometime around 1993, and another has a doctor's office as a client what is running Netware 4.1 for over six years. But these pale by comparison to a reader who says he is "downright primordial with Netware 3.12. It will be retired once and for all in the next couple of months when we finally replace the DOS-based application that has been the lifeblood of our advertising department." David Merrill, a computer specialist with the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, writes "Just two months ago, we finally retired the last Windows95 system on our network. We also have a Power Macintosh (topped out at OS 7.5). As a non-profit trade association, we are squeezing the most we can out of every technology dollar." Another correspondent was also running Netware 3.12 and a DOS version of Great Plains accounting software on a 15-node network too. My final Novell entry concerned the original version of Groupwise that was running on a Data General eight-processor Unix box. Lest you think Novell is getting all the accolades, one reader sent me screenshots to prove that his Windows NT v4 server is still up and running of 1079 days with nary a reboot, and being used to serve up IP addresses for about 3,500 client workstations. "The server out lived the core switch it was originally plugged into, the rack it was originally mounted in, and the KVM it was originally using. If all goes as planned, it will be retired in November without having any down time and replaced with a Windows 2000 machine."


Perhaps the most amusing contrasting situations were these following entries. Mark Hall wrote and told me about this: "My chiropractor is still using Medi-Soft on his 286-10mhz with 512k ram and an old 40 MB drive, running DOS 5. He refuses to spend the time to learn something new. His family members are using 1GHz+ running Win98 and the staff is running with the newest version of Medi-Soft, Office, etc. But he won't change. Actually asked if I could upgrade him to a 486 with DOS 6.x!" Another correspondent told me about an Apple IIc running a custom-made program designed to print out a set of behavioral test questions for an HMO in California that was still in use in 1997 and dated back the 1980s. Kinda scary, don't you agree?


Finally, when it comes to loyalty, don't ever try to separate someone from his or her Personal Information Manager (a software category that has gone out of vogue these days. Paul Schindler is still running a ten-year old PIM called Ecco and doesn't want to convert to something else for fear of losing any data. Steve and Cynde Magidson still use Dayflo Tracker (c. 1983) to maintain their database of southern California Rutgers alumni members. (Steve was one of the architects of the software). Both of these are DOS-based programs.


What is clear from this walk down memory lane is the enduring legacy of many computer applications, and the noble effort of the many men and women that continue to maintain this aging code base and rag-tag collection. It also is a testimonial to the old adage, "if it still works, don't mess with it." Thanks one and all for your contributions,