10 (harrowing) tales of outdated tech used way past its prime

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it breaks, buy a replacement part on eBay and stubbornly refuse to upgrade.

UNIVAC 1

Old but unable to be forgotten

In May, Rhode Island politics was roiled by the revelation that the state Department of Human Services's attempt to move away from its outdated InRhodes computer system wasn't going to happen. If you know anything about major government computer rollouts, you know this wasn't the first time this had happened, either; a state legislator compared it to "a similar situation as we have with the DMV where we had to practically get people out of nursing homes to come keep our old programs working."

Well, businesses and individuals often hold on to their computer equipment for too long too. We've collected some harrowing tales -- and if you've got another one, email me and I'll add it to the list!

Also on ITworld:

George R.R. Martin

Windows is coming

George R.R. Martin is a modern guy, with a modern computer that connects to the Internet and does all the things you'd expect it to. But the massive, thousand-page, beloved novels that he writes in the Song of Ice and Fire series are written on a DOS computer running WordStar 4, as he explained to Conan O'Brien: it does exactly what he wants and nothing else. No word on what version of DOS he's running, but WordStar 4 was released in 1987, so he's working on a nearly 20-year-old word processor. Do you think his agent and editors need their own copies of the software to read the file formats?

Windows 3.1

No accounting for taste

Famous authors aren't the only ones sticking by what works for them. Sysadmin Arthur reports that "in 2012 I was working in a computer repair store, and a business owner came in with the Windows 3.1 box they had been running QuickBooks 1.0 on for almost 20 years. They had all their years of accounting data on the computer and wanted it fixed because they didn't feel it was worth it to upgrade. The crashes the computer was having were due to a faulty RAM module (go figure); we found an old stick in the computer graveyard in the back of the store that worked in the machine, which we just gave them. As far as I know that thing is still plugging along somewhere."

Epson printer

Wait, where does he get the paper?

New Jersey contractor Chris Smaltini encountered a man who's even more old school. "I used to work for a builder who I'm pretty sure still uses a dot matrix printer to write his checks. Something about using a certain kind of accounting software that never got translated to Windows (Windows!) and he can't maintain his books the way he wants to with any of the current bookkeeping software. Back in '05 I tried to help him switch to QuickBooks, but once he realized he couldn't keep track of his projects the way he wanted to, that was it for QuickBooks. He has a source for the printer ribbons and I know he deals with a guy on eBay who sells him refurbished printers when they die."

Windows 98

When old school forces YOU to go old school

Sarah Jennings's wife Cat Chamberlain is a doctor, and "at the hospital where Cat works, the electronic medical record system will only work with Windows 98. So we had to go find a computer that had Windows 98 on it so she could chart from home." They tracked one down at Staples -- your source for extremely outdated computer products, apparently, and "even the guy at Staples was like, 'This is a s----y computer. You don't really want it.' And we agreed, but bought it anyway."

This keyboard has a weak pulse, we're guessing

Hopefully not fatal vision

Hope stories about hospitals running outdated technology don't disturb you! One anonymous hospital worker from the Midwest up until recently used Invision, with a browser-based front-end to what was originally a text-based terminal application; the copyright date on the ASCII art-adorned main screen was 1990. "We had to memorize a Byzantine code system," says our tipster, "and nothing could be out of order or the program would have a fatal crash, saving none of the patient information. This happened A LOT." To avoid crashes, birthdates had to be added to some records, even if they were unknown or medically irrelevant: "Previously we used 01/01/1899 but had to switch to 1990 because, I suspect, of the decade change in 2010."

reading X-rays

Legendarily old (and broken)

Invision wasn't even our hospital correspondent's most irritating tech nemesis. That honor went to a computer used to search and print medical images. "It struggled to run Windows 2000, even with the RAM maxed and a new hard drive. I would pull up my images, leave to perform all my morning duties and eat breakfast, and come back an hour later to wait for it to finish. It required constant rebooting and waiting for the system to connect with the network (which took 15 minutes). This used to be our only digital printing computer. The discs had such a high failure rate that we had to test every last one before handing them out, and some doctor's offices refused them because of past experiences."

ATM running OS/2

Time warp

A correspondent from a credit union in the Northeast who asked to remain anonymous told me that that "our ATMs for a long time (like, up until April of this year) used OS/2 Warp." His employer was at one point IBM's credit union, so this makes a certain amount of sense, though it long ago became open to anyone and he mostly chalks it up to "corporate inertia." OS/2 is actually running on a surprising number of ATMs worldwide (the picture on this slide, taken in 2009, is from Australia), and works behind the scenes on big systems like the one that runs the New York Subway's MetroCard readers, where a consultant who helps maintain it says it never crashes.

microfiche

Teach a man to 'fiche, and he'll have 'fiche for a lifetime

Patrick Lusk worked for the insurance division of a financial services giant in the mid '00s, which, in its previous bout of technological updating thirty or so years earlier, had converted its records from paper to microfiche, forcing him to stare through a "clunky reader with its awful screen" at microfiche sent via snail mail. "Sometimes we'd get high tech and they would print the fiche image to paper, scan the paper, and email me that scan." Microfiche lingered on until 2006 or so because "the work of using the microfiche is spread all over the company, so no one area shoulders the cost burden of the manual labor"; getting the budget for a mass conversion was tricky.

Not this kind of banyan!

Swinging through the VINES

When Phil Catelinet started at his current job in 2000, "they were still using Banyan VINES servers for email and file sharing. We also used DLT and DAT tapes for backups for some servers until the beginning of this decade." The reason for the slow transition from this older tech is straightforward: "It's a law firm, and nothing changes quickly in a law firm. Record keeping is a huge problem, as is the need to have everything online 99.99999% of the time." The lesson from all these holdovers is usually that someting working fine now is better than something else potentially working better -- but also potentially not working at all.

Paper punchtapes

Tale of the tape

And sometimes it just takes a long time for organizations to get around to replacing something. Ron Hershey is President of Endeavor Digital, Inc., which specializes in, among other things, moving data from tapes onto what they call Virtual Tape Storage on modern media. Usually the tape in question is magnetic, but a U.S. Air Force facility had a hundreds of paper punchtapes that needed conversion, which involved dipping into EDI's supplier pool to find a punchtape reader (last manufactured in 1971), learning how to fix broken tapes, and paying someone to nursemaid the process for three months. Five pallets worth of tapes were condensed onto a single thumb drive -- a testament to the reasons why, sometimes, you should upgrade.