Technology Planning and Analysis

Rant: Backwards compatibility is now borked-wards compatibility

Backwards compatibility was once the great value provider of technological progress. It said: ‘here’s the new thing and it’s great but you can still run the old stuff you collected for years before’.

For mainframe computers that means running applications that are decades old. There are modern cameras that can be fitted with very old lenses. Windows used to run DOS applications and IBM even made a version of OS/2 that could run Windows and DOS apps (“a better DOS than DOS, and a better Windows than Windows”) as well as native applications.

But somewhere along the line, backwards compatibility became borked-wards compatibility and makers of hardware and software seemed to take a devilish glee in making the new stuff not run the old stuff. At times it’s understandable that you have to kiss the old days goodbye of course: you don’t really need your shiny new operating system to run DOS or CP/M software today and you probably wouldn’t want the gigantic parallel ports of yore on your sleek tablet or laptop.

But does Apple need its own charging interconnect? And if it really does, could it not stick to the same one for a while? Is it necessary for makers of inkjet printers to treat cartridges as proprietary vessels with the result that their ink is literally more expensive than champagne?

The lack of openness in the technology industry means that our electronics become landfill too quickly and our cupboards and drawers fill up with old cellphone leads and chargers, peripherals and accessories. It’s a messy, environmentally-hostile and wasteful affair.

Regulators have been far too slow to protect consumers from sharp practices that lock in buyers and lock out competition. If they don’t hurry up, we should vote with our feet.


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Torquemada, not his real name, has been casting a jaundiced eye on the technology world since the Sinclair C5 was causing as much excitement as the driverless car today, a 64K RAM pack could turbocharge performance, and Alan Sugar was the equivalent of Elon Musk.

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