A Forward Look at Going Backwards

People fear change.  They avoid change, taking great lengths to keep doing things the way they had been.  For the most part, businesses have accommodated this willingly, at least as long as it doesn’t cost them.  That’s a key point when dealing with backwards compatibility.  The great truth is that at some point, your favorite software/file format isn’t going to be supported anymore.  The question we intend to address is what’s a reasonable accommodation in the world of electronics?

We’re going to start with a look at a market segment where backwards compatibility is not actually all that common and that’s console video gaming.  In the early days of consoles where you actually could change games, the manufacturers rarely got a second generation.  The Atari 5200 did have an adapter to play Atari 2600 games, but there were many complaints about the form factor.  The later Atari 7800 system could play the vast majority of 2600 games with no adapter, but could not play 5200 games.  The 7800/2600 compatibility happens to be the first real example of backwards compatibility in the console market.  On the other hand, considering the two major competitors of the 2600’s day, Intellivision and Colecovision, also had 2600 adapters, perhaps playing 2600 games wasn’t that hard to accomplish.

The Sega Genesis (MegaDrive outside the US) did have a solution to play Sega Master System (SMS) cartridges.  It was the Power Base Converter which could be added on and only cost about the same as a new game.  Not a terribly big deal in the US, but was probably far more welcome in Europe where the SMS was actually more popular than the Nintendo Entertainment System.  In fact, when the MegaDrive II came out and it didn’t take the original Power Base Converter, a new one was created.  Our belief is that this is a perfectly reasonable solution.  Quite possibly the best model since people who don’t care aren’t paying for it on the Genesis and those who want it aren’t paying an arm and a leg.  That’s basically all there was in the cartridge era.

The disc era we believe made people believe that backwards compatibility should be expected.  This we fully blame this on Sony and the fact the original Playstation (PS1) games carried over very well to the Playstation 2 (PS2).  Upon closer inspection, that remains the exception rather than the rule.  But we’ll get back to Sony.  

Sega wasn’t the first company to put out a disc based system.  They were the first company that put out a second disc based unit.  However the Sega Saturn couldn’t play Sega Genesis CD games and the Sega Dreamcast was not able to play Saturn games.  This really was the standard.  

Nintendo was late to the disc party, only moving to discs with the Gamecube.  However they did embrace it when the Wii came around.  Only this year, 5 years after release, has the Wii dropped Gamecube compatibility with their new systems.  Which is more than we can say for Microsoft and the Xbox 360’s ability to play original Xbox games.  The biggest strike on 360 backwards compatibility is that it required a hard drive which many of the pre-slim machines don’t have.  After that, it required a download which requires an Xbox Live account.  Even then, we’re looking at a maximum 213 games which worked at any level and many of them had glitches which impacted play from minor annoyance to making it effectively unplayable.  Really, it’s better to consider the two Xbox systems as standing alone from each other.

Which brings us back to Sony.  They did well when they moved to the PS2, with all but a handful of games working entirely from the PS1 library.  And to start things off with the PS3, they managed to make a system that was astoundingly compatible with games from both prior generations. However, decisions related to costs and market caused Sony to first change the method of PS2 backwards compatibility, resulting in a decline in games successfully supported from 98% to less than 90%, potentially less than 80% by some accounts, and then to remove it less then 3 years into the console’s lifespan. This doesn’t seem to be that short an amount of time, except for the simple fact that games were still being developed for the PS2, and they were still making and selling PS2 hardware  (In fact, games are still being made for the PS2 and hardware can be bought new). This strikes us as a bizarre decision, since one either has dropped making new games for a few years, or would never have had the backwards compatibility to begin with. And this does not include that the PS3 still plays PS1 games, even today. We try not to think about it too hard.

For all their tendency to practically ignore backwards compatibility for home consoles, Nintendo went completely in the opposite direction with regards to their portable lineup, with the original Gameboy and Gameboy DSi being the only systems that effectively did not support titles from other Gameboy platforms. The 3DS, original DS and Gameboy Color all support games from the immediate prior generation of their line, and the Gameboy Advance supported a staggering two prior generations throughout its entire life. In fact, to access the entire Gameboy line of games from beginning to end, all you would need to own is two systems. For twenty two years worth of games. Nintendo deserves a lot of praise for this, for this is well beyond what would be expected for a simple declaration of “you can play all your older games”. They have, indeed, told us that we can have our cake, and eat it too.

Which brings us right back around to Sony and the PSP.  While we can acknowledge that yes, indeed, they have committed to being backwards compatible with the PSVita… but only with the digital distribution, and not any physical media that you’ve picked up for their original Playstation Portable. And the idea that paying a fee to get the games you already have physical media for to play on the new system is like buying a Power Base Converter for the Sega Genesis, is not really close to the truth.  We think Sony, from a PR perspective, would have been better to just not try to be backwards compatible.  But PR has not been Sony’s strong suit.

This is where we move away from entertainment devices and onto “productivity” equipment.  Yes, time to tackle the computer.  There are several aspects to cover here.  There’s operating system level, hardware and file format support.  The most confusing may be file format, so we’ll start there.

For those of us who were heavy MS DOS platform users, we pretty much all used WordPerfect 5.X.  It was ubiquitous to the point that MS Word 2003 could still read files.  That’s actually very good.  This really was the days before open file formats and one really couldn’t expect cross compatibility, though the ability to read competing formats would be a benefit for adoption.  The reality, though, is that eventually, all file formats fall out of favor and the effort to keep them readable becomes less important and will be dropped.  In fact, we know that MS Word won’t even open certain (very) old MS Word formatted files due to security exploit concerns.  At least not without a registry edit.  

The real concern is related to proprietary formats.  Specialized software does tend to suffer from it worse than others.  In these areas the real need is for advance warning so that files can be converted to a supported format or output can be created for reference.  We will concede that two months may not be enough, but think a year or more is sufficient.  The other part is evaluating what a new format can do for you.  In most cases it means sharing your data is much easier.  Sometimes this is a hard concept to get across with niche market software, but before complaining, we think it’s important to find out what the new format(s) can do for you.  Sometimes it’s as simple as meaning you can now work on the latest version of Windows.

So what about OS updates for PCs and Laptops?  Well, for one thing we’re going to stay away from Linux because neither of us are heavy users and really couldn’t speak intelligently on the subject.  Thankfully Apple’s OS X and Microsoft’s Windows demonstrate pretty well the pitfalls of hanging on too long or dropping too soon.  

Microsoft seems to have a strange relationship with it’s customers.  Despite being in a dominant position in the market, it does seem to respond to customers if they complain consistently and loudly enough.  It’s just impossible to predict what complaint they are going to respond to.  Windows 95 could basically run your old DOS software, and since Win 98 and Win ME also were based on the same kernel, you had years and years of software you could run.  NT and 2000 did pretty well as well, but then XP came in, some of it wasn’t working so well.  Then came XP 64 and some old things really stopped working.  So when Microsoft finally decided to commit to 64 bit with Windows 7, we got XP mode as a possibility if you got the right version.  It’s a virtual environment running in Windows, although it has its limits, it is a viable method of supporting old software.  All of this revealed a tendency in the Microsoft customer.  They don’t want to replace software if it still does everything they need it to, either because it’s considered prohibitively expensive, or in a few cases, is no longer supported by the original publisher.  Both of those reasons are dwarfed by simple stubbornness.   They are used to a software that does X in a way they like and don’t want to learn something “new” even if it would save them hours.  On the other hand, software companies, which Microsoft is one of, want customers to buy more.  This is where we think Microsoft watches itself.  They very easily could use their OS position to render old versions of Office unusable on new versions of Windows.  That could both bring the attention of the Feds as well as drive customers to other products entirely.  So unfortunately, we think they haven’t advanced as much as they could have had they pushed a little harder to not support old software.  We do believe there is a middle ground of cheap updates to current versions when updating the OS out there.  However there’s nothing that can be done about customer stubbornness.

Apple tends to force change through.  OS X had included support for the classic Mac OS up through Tiger’s lifespan (released in 2005), but that really only mattered if you had pre-Intel processor hardware.  When they started with Intel processers in 2006, they couldn’t run the classic software environment and subsequently you could not maintain that classic software support if you wanted to move up to a newer version of OS X even on older hardware.  So in this case while technically supported on patches, it really wasn’t supported in the long term.  So the question becomes how long is long enough?  It sure seemed like classic support was dropped fast, but then OS X was born in 2001.  Five years of real support, which is actually longer than the effective lifespans of most computers, so Apple didn’t do that bad.   The classic environment also reached back further into old Mac OS capability than just 9.X.  Keeping it into the Intel era would have been quite a feat of programming.  This is a polite way of saying, “not worth the development time” as it would require emulation within emulation within emulation.  Regardless, the main lesson here is that Apple remains fundamentally a hardware company; when the hardware moves on, the software will too.  Quickly.  Without looking back.

The real bugaboo with the PC world and backwards compatibility actually seems to be with hardware.  Not so much the PC itself, but peripherals and accessories.  To be very specific, printers seem to be a big deal.  That’s a lesson that was learned by Microsoft very hard with Vista because old drivers just didn’t work there which seemed a bit of a departure from previous Windows updates.  Printer makers really had no incentive to make updated drivers for printers no longer sold, so it kind of fell to Microsoft themselves as it was a barrier to upgrading and they didn’t follow through.  Not until Windows 7.  We can understand this being a hang up for a recent purchase.   However if your printer is still connected through a parallel port (via adapter) rather than USB, we don’t feel much pity.  

So what conclusions can we draw?  As a company you are probably better off from a PR standpoint not being backwards compatible than having it then dropping it shortly after.  File formats should not be considered immortal.  If you can still use software five years older than OS you are using, you’re probably doing pretty good.  However most fundamental is that once a new technology has proven itself in the market, expect everyone to jump onboard that train.

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About jferio

A geek, known to create massive bursts of hard geek radiation.
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