I’ve always assumed that George R.R. Martin has a contract with Satan, one of those highly detailed, written-in-blood scrolls of dense verbiage that outlines the fabulous success he can expect as the author of the acclaimed “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. The books have been adapted as part of HBO’s wildly popular “Game of Thrones” series. They are incredibly lengthy. They are also very well written. Word has it that Martin, a portly, elderly man who wears the same black fisherman’s cap almost everywhere he goes, has revealed the ending of his series to the folks behind the HBO series, just in case he dies before they’re done producing it. But I’ve always secretly hoped that in the contract in which Martin sold his soul for the type of success of which every aspiring author dreams, Lucifer slipped in a rider stipulating that Martin can never take off that stupid hat. It would explain a lot.
As if to assure his readers that his eccentricities have not yet been exhausted, Martin recently revealed that he writes the massive “A Song of Ice and Fire” books in Wordstar 4.0 on an antiquated word processor running MS-DOS. Wordstar is an obsolete, monochrome interface that resembles nothing so much as an old ATM screen. Popular in the 1980s, it was initially released in 1978. Its dominant position in the market for word processing was supplanted by then-new WordPerfect around 1985, and if you remember WordPerfect, chances are you’re over 40.
“I actually have two computers,” CNET quotes Martin on Conan O’Brien’s show. “I have a computer I browse the Internet with and I get my email on, and I do my taxes on. And then I have my writing computer, which is a DOS machine, not connected to the Internet. … I actually like it, it does everything I want a word processing program to do and it doesn’t do anything else,” Martin said.
“I don’t want any help. I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lower case letter and it becomes a capital letter. I don’t want a capital. If I wanted a capital, I would have typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key.”
Reliance on obsolete software and equipment, however, is not limited to quirky authors in tugboat captain hats. Last month, Microsoft announced the obsolescence of Windows XP. Drew Turney called it “one of the most successful and longest-running PC operating systems in history.” What this means for countless businesses relying on this old software (and old computer hardware to run it) is that they must now incur significant costs to upgrade. “When a software vendor acts, we all have to follow to some extent,” Turney explains. “If you swear by very old (or very new) versions of your favorite software, there’s a chance you’ll be cut out of the post-XP support world altogether. Along with XP, support for Office 2003 [also ended] in April, and upcoming versions of software like Office 365 won’t run on XP at all.”
Robert Bowman asks and answers the question that these facts beg: Why are so many businesses relying on obsolete computers and software? Windows XP has been out-of-date for years. What has changed is that Microsoft is no longer supporting it, meaning they will no longer offer software upgrades, patches and fixes. In a rare reversal, the company did release an XP software fix after the obsolescence date in order to plug a significant security exploit (which, say it with me now, affects Microsoft Explorer, a browser so frequently targeted for malware). That just underscores the potential problems a company can face if it doesn’t take the significant time, and spend the substantial funds, needed to upgrade to a newer system and machines to run it.
“You would think that nearly all companies would long ago have updated from XP – but you would be wrong,” writes Bowman. “About a third of the customers of GE Intelligent Platforms are still on XP, according to Matt Wells, general manager for automation software. Even more frightening are the 75 percent of water utilities that continue to run the old OS. … In many utilities and other industrial companies, a separate IT department controls business and office systems, while manufacturing runs its own computers. ‘If it wasn’t broken,’ said Wells, ‘they didn’t fix it.’ The machines that run huge utility plants are expensive and have lifespans of 30 years or more. And many new apps can be added without touching the underlying operating system.”
This is a significant problem. Not only are such obsolete systems very vulnerable to malware, but these old systems can be exploited deliberately to facilitate terrorist attacks. “You have to wonder what it will take for companies to see the light,” Bowman says. “As far back as 2011, industry should have been spurred into action by reports that a hacker broke into the system of an Illinois water plant. …[T]he mere possibility of a cyber-attack should have sent IT managers scurrying for new software and anti-virus protection years ago. … Operating systems interface with so many functions in an industrial setting that companies often don’t understand the full implications of a cyber breach.”
Viewed in that light, a devotion to ancient technology is no longer a quaint eccentricity. It’s a lapse in judgment. It doesn’t matter if an author uses an outdated word processor to write his novels, but if the computer on which he does his taxes is itself out of date, he is more vulnerable to identity theft. At the corporate and industrial levels, outdated software and hardware doesn’t just risk the continuity of a commercial endeavor or a utility service. It endangers the employees working in that business and the customers relying on that utility.
George R.R. Martin is famous for the quote, “All men must die.” Sadly, this is true of software, too. If we do not endure the pain of addressing our dying software and hardware now, we will surely suffer greater pains later. It’s only a matter of time.
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