On why tech companies drop support for older software

A fellow Carina author has a blog post up today expressing her frustration over technology companies forcing people to upgrade even if they don’t want to–brought on in no small part by Microsoft dropping support for Windows XP. If you’re in tech, it’s worth a read, just as a reminder that a lot of end users of your product are NOT going to approach that product with the same mindset that you will.

But I did want to talk about one thing Janis has to say in that post, which is on the question of why Microsoft dropped support for XP.

Sure, software companies want to make money. They’re companies, after all. And in order to keep making money, they do have to keep developing new things. But any given team at any given software company has only so many people available to do that work. Developers have to write the code that actually creates the thing. The QA team has to test it. And this includes not only getting that thing finished and ready to sell, but also keeping track of any reported bugs, and releasing fixes for those as necessary.

The team I’m on at Big Fish, for example, is in charge of features on our web site. I’m a QA tester. What that means for my job is that if we change any given thing on the web site, I have to load up the appropriate page in web browsers and make sure that that change behaves the way we want it to. But it’s not as easy a question as “I just load it up in a browser and look at it once and say whether or not it works”.

Because there are a LOT of browsers in active use. Internet Explorer–MULTIPLE versions of IE, in fact. Firefox, on both the PC and Mac. Chrome, also both on the PC and Mac. Safari on the Mac. AND Safari on iPhones and iPads, multiple versions thereof (we’ve got iPads in our device locker that run iOS 6, iOS 7, AND iOS 8). Chrome and Firefox on Android devices as well.

I have to look at changes in all of those browsers. And that’s just one change on one web page. My job gets progressively more complicated the more complicated a change I have to look at.

This is called a test matrix.

When I first started working at Big Fish, our test matrix involved IE 6, IE 7, and IE 8. But as I’ve continued my job there, the versions of IE we’ve needed to focus on have changed. IE’s most recent version is IE 11. And if I had to worry about every single version of IE that’s still in use out in the wild, that by itself would mean six different versions of IE I’d have to test on. And I STILL have to also care about Firefox, Chrome, and Safari, on the Mac and all those iDevices and Android devices too.

It’s not possible to test when your test matrix starts getting that big. I do still have to sleep and eat sometimes, you know. Not to mention write.

Now, imagine I have to test an operating system, not just one change on one web page. Then my job gets even MORE complicated–because there are a LOT of things that go into making an operating system. And it takes way, way more staff power to develop and test something that complex.

Nevertheless, the team that makes an operating system still has to also care about its test matrix. Only in their case, they have to think about things like “how many different types of computers do we have to load this operating system on?” That includes both desktop machines and laptops. And in the case of Windows 8, they had to think about making it work on tablets, too.

And if that operating system team is spending most of its time working on making the next version of that operating system, they’re going to have only so much time available to spend on supporting older versions of that operating system. Because again, those people have to also sleep and eat!

If Microsoft was to continue supporting XP, they would need to keep enough people around whose job it would be to focus on that. They’d also need to keep machines around that’d be old enough to run XP. Microsoft hires a LOT of people, and they occupy a whole heckuva lot of space in Redmond. But even their resources are finite, at the end of the day. It’s easy to dismiss their decision to drop XP support as a question of simple greed–and again, see previous commentary; yes, Microsoft wants to make money, just like any other company on the planet. Eventually, though, they’re going to have to decide that it’s just not worth it to keep that support active, when their available people and resources can be more effectively spent on something else.

But next time you want to rant about why any given software company is making you upgrade a thing you’re used to using a certain way, I ask that you also take a moment to remember that the team that actually made that thing aren’t out to personally make your life difficult. Promise! We just want to do our job just like anybody else, and have time at the end of the day to come home and have lives.

In closing, two final notes:

One, Bill Gates hasn’t worked for Microsoft for years. So if you want to rant about any current activities of theirs, they’re not Gates’ fault anymore.

And two, I AM a raving technophile and love me some shiny upgrades. But they’re going to pry Mac Word 2008 out of my cold dead fingers. 😉

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