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Ask HN: What's the oldest piece of software still in use?
55 points by jgrahamc on July 30, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments
I use a 13 year old copy of Quicken for bank account management. I'm interested in examples of software that are older than that and still being used.

I'm not interested in software that's been patched over the years, but code that's been unchanged for years and is still in active use. Are you using any DOS programs, for example?

I wrote the lot traceability module of Compufact's ERP package in 1987. 3 years ago, I engaged a company that still used that software. Just for fun, I searched for my initials in their repository. Good news: that software was still being used. Not so good news: one of my programs had been changed 120 times, including bug fixes. I pretended that it was written by another "edw".

So over 26 years, there have been 120 edits? Including bug fixes? Which means not all 120 edits were bug fixes, presumably it included other things like feature enhancements? That's less than 5 changes a year on average for a 26 year old program. In my book, unless you're working on a life-or-death system or a space-bound system [1], less than 5 changes a year over 26 years is something to be proud of!

[1] And no one individual programmer should be solely responsible for life-or-death systems or space-bound systems.

Let's define "still in use," because that's the heart of the question. Technically speaking, I'm sure someone could dig an Apple IIc out of storage somewhere and successfully run a game on it. Hell, someone out there might be doing that right now. To me, that anecdotal experience doesn't translate into "in use."

I'd define "in use" to mean still in productive service to a group of people or institutions significant enough to represent a niche market.

For that, I'd probably look to things like avionics software in certain airplanes, navigation systems on old ships, firmware in medical devices and diagnostics, or perhaps to inventory management systems in old warehouses.

And who knows what firmware we loaded onto our Cold War-era ICBMs, for that matter? Or what dusty, backwards-compatible systems we would need to maintain control over them? Would anyone like to play a game? :)

Similarly: I worked on some avionics networking software a few years back, written in C, and a surprisingly old version of GCC (I think from the late 1990's, in 2006-2007, so approximately a decade old then) was being used. That particular version had already been qualified for avionics development at the company, and to upgrade to a newer version would have meant assuming the cost of requalification.

Just so long as the old compiler worked well enough, they had no reason to upgrade. (I did uncover a bug in the compiler which I had to work around, but wasn't enough to warrant an upgrade.)

There was an article a few months back about a company in Texas using a very old computer dating to 1948: http://www.pcworld.com/article/249951/if_it_aint_broke_dont_...

Ask a mainframe shop. The back-compat date for mainframes, even just-off-the-line System Z boxes, is 1964.

--edit-- I also play Commodore 64 games in emulators, and they date from the 80s, but I suspect this is not the sort of answer you're looking for.

I'm doing an internship at a mainframe shop right now.

I took a look into it and the oldest macro I could find that I use semi regularly is SYS1.MACLIB(DCBD). A utility for working with data control blocks which dates back to 1977, putting it at 36 years old.

There are definitely older programs on the system, but I'm not sure how often they're used.

I bet IEFBR14 beats it. I also think it wins in the "smallest number of patches per year for actively used software" category.

And (apocryphally) "largest number of patches per byte" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IEFBR14#History_from_the_RISKS_...)

I wrote a set of Nagios plugins for z/Linux in 2008, to monitor a DOS/VS application, running under VM/370 running under VM/ESA, running in an LPAR next to the z/Linux.

I don't know how old the application is, but DOS/VS is from 1972, and depreciated since 1980 by DOS/VSE.

Heh, so you were my competition!

It must have been about '08 when I did some work porting parts of Tivoli's event monitoring stuff to z/Linux.

Prehistorik 2 (1993) even displays a notice on startup "wow, this game still runs in 2013", blisfully unaware that it's inside DosBox on an Android tablet.

So indeed, the oldest software will probably be running inside a VM.

Titus the Fox also does this (1992 by the same developers IIRC)

The "running unpatched" part would make me bet on embedded software. Maybe some machine in a factory still usefully following a 50-year-old punch-card to "print out" patterned carpets, for example.

The article initially concerns a company that uses an IBM 402 - a punch card reading/writing accounting machine with plug-board programs - that has been in service over 50 years.

It covers PDP's and some home systems (eg Apple IIe) too.

WinAmp 2, which I believe is from 1998/1999.

I have a zip of the download, and just keep installing it and moving forward. I never quite made the jump to Winamp 3 and once I stopped moving forward every update to Winamp deterred me some more.

Try Foobar2000.

I have.

Over the years I have tried everything, but I like WinAmp 2.

WinAmp 2 just works great. It's no nonsense and I love the quick find (CTRL+J) on the library... search file name, path, and metadata. Which is how I need search to work, based on my file conventions as well as the metadata.

Don't older versions of Winamp contain security vulnerabilities?

Canadian nuclear industry has committed to continue the use of PDP-11 until 2050. I guess they have some software there running from 70s. Here's a recent ad for PDP-11 assembly coders they're in dire need of:


That is simply incredible.

In military maintenance we use loads of software developed in the 70s on old test stations. These programs slowly get rehosted to newer testers, or until the systems under test go obsolete.

Where I work we have hundreds of engineers programming in Teradyne's LASAR software, rehosting old programs onto new digital test platforms. LASAR was developed in the mid 80s and we have it running on VAX and UNIX servers. Since electronics no longer use combinational logic in discrete chips, no newer software is available.

I work in a biochemistry research laboratory at a large, well funded university. It's interesting to observe the software/hardware usage around the lab.

The boring majority of software in the lab is just the latest iteration of a 'Microsoft-whatever' suite stuffed into a standard enterprise Dell box.

It's the exceptions that are interesting.

For example, a few weeks ago the lab's last PC that ran Windows 95 died. That really sucked for a few people because a piece of proprietary software that ran an important microscope camera only ran on Windows 95. (Only ran on Win95 if you didn't want to pay big time for an upgrade to a modern OS.)

Intriguingly, a PI I am working with is planning on using his old Silicon Graphics machine very soon. He told me there are still certain features lacking in modern software that can be found on software written for some older SG machines.

Finally, we are in the process of restoring an old machine that is frequently used for pulling apart very thin pieces of glass for electrophysiology experiments. Granted, all the software inside is embedded. But the software and the hardware still exceed 13 years of age by a wide margin.

It's really neat to see older programs and hardware chugging along. And it's strangely reassuring to see that while encountering the latest Javascript framework debate on Hacker News.

We use DOS programs within virtual machines to process data that comes in on 1/2" tape from government sources and return it to them on DVD's. The oldest of these would be mid 80's I guess.

Edit: Changed "in-virtuo" to "within virtual machines" for clarity.

The science lot usually call simulation 'In silico' in their papers. Personally, unnecessary latin makes me cringe.

You're probably right. I can still edit, I'll change for clarity.

PC-DOS or DOS/VS? (Intel or /360 architecture DOS)


The programs convert the ebcdic files on tape to ascii and then build a cheesy search index for other DOS based programs. It takes 2 different virtual machines, two different dos releases and 4 different programs to get it done.

The whole process is an exercise in Seuss-ian ridiculousness.

I was doing some work for a friend of mine late last year and he was still running his DOS-based accounting software from 1987 I think. I can't remember the name of it though. He wouldn't abandon it, so now that he has a new computer he's running it in a VM, including a virtual parallel printer since it wouldn't recognise his new one.

I still tease him about it.

There is an accountant at a company I briefly worked for who still uses an Apple II and some archaic accounting software that he learned to do accounting on. He refuses to change, so they just have a big stack of Apple IIs in a closet to replace them when they wear out. That software probably hasn't been touched since 1980 at the latest.

Can we get a picture of that?

I worked for a small rural telephone company who still operates a DMS100. One of my job duties as an on-call Unix system administrator was to perform a reel-to-reel tape backup on it. This DMS100 was installed in 1983 and the programs that operate on it must be much older than that. Still operates today.

We are using Ingres Databases from the early 90s or late 80s. We have tens of billions of rows.

List of missing things: EVERYTHING. Primary/Foreign key relationships are buggy, therefore, not used. Views are somewhat available. Joins are buggy. Have to build all indices by hand choosing the relational columns and data structure/allocation. Cannot subtract sets without huge where clauses with very odd syntax. Rely mostly on WHERE EXISTS/NOT EXISTS or WHERE IN. Can only perform single column queries in a where clause, no WHERE (a, b) IN. Its free and it works. IT is a cost center. No new databases anytime in the near future.

Does my copy of Asteroids for the Atari 2600 count? It's been locked up in storage in my mothers attic for about 15 years and the last time I was back home it still worked perfectly. I believe the game is close to 30 years old.

Compilers are pretty interesting- the current compiler was compiled by the previous compiler. Theoretically, our modern compilers embody ~40 years of history..

I made a website that's by now obsolete for anyone but me, but I still use it. It went live in late 2002 and hasn't been patched since early/mid 2003. This year 1and1 (my host) disabled MYSQL 4, so I moved database to MYSQL 5, but did not change the code. I have grandiose hopes to update it to look current.

Although now that I look at it, they say my version of php will be phased out August 1'st :( And they are raising the price on August 1'st ...

Link to the site before time runs out? I love seeing "antique" websites.


If you click something that goes to page-not-found, make sure the link has 'orig' in front of it, because in some places I went directly to www

just a heads-up for you. 1&1 will disable php4 too this year! ;)

Yea, that's tomorrow actually according to email I got from them. I'll see what that means when it happens, I'm the only user, and if I have to recode it, I will. I didn't keep up-to date on PHP, but it seems PHP5 is mostly backwards compatible.

Not that old, but I always found it interesting that we learned C/C++ in highschool using a version of Borland from 1993, which made the program as old as myself.

This isn't the oldest, but is definitely one of the oldest softwares that is used at almost every restaurant in the US and maybe other countries as well.

Aloha Restaurant POS

Watch this youtube video, then watch what servers use at your favorite restaurants.


I used it back in 1998 at a restaurant and it felt old then. Still used at almost every bar, restaurant I go to.

I know of a Government organisation still using 25 year old software running on VAX/VMS ! Hardware support is the main reason they are getting rid of it !

Though not the oldest by any means, the testing software used for the Architectural Registration Exam in the US and Canada uses Microsoft Media Viewer, Macro-Vision, and the Sirlin engine for handling AutoCad R12 files - all early 90's technology from before NT and 95 [i.e. Windows 3.x].

It was patched for Vista, but doesn't run fully under any x64 version owing to it's 16 bit code.

There is a new version in the pipeline at the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, but the old validated test engine is still in everyday use.

The hangup is the Media Viewer 1.3 technology. I believe based on comments I previously [2007] made elsewhere that this was Windows 3.0 technology - it's pretty much impossible these days to do a native search for anything which can be interpreted as related to a current commercial technology.

The practice programs for the Architect Registration Exam still use it and can be downloaded from NCARB:


The software on the Voyager probes is pretty old, 1977, and I can't find anything that says it's been (or can be) updated since.

Amsat AO-7 from '74 handily beats it.

Some of the "program" in AO-7 is discrete hardwired. Depends if you demand its reprogramable. In which case mask programmed rom devices are unintentionally removed. Or keyboards which are debounced in hardware instead of software are unintentionally removed because the debouncing is done in hardware logic not software. AO-7 is probably "close enough to count" although I can sympathize with an argument against it.

The (probably very small) pieces of software on-board the Pioneer 10? It was launched in 1973 and has certainly never been touched since.

Pioneer 10 didn't/doesn't really have a computer. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_10#Power_and_communicat...:

"The spacecraft included two command decoders and a command distribution unit, a very limited form of processor, to direct operations on the spacecraft"

If we call what it has a computer, it was reprogrammed remotely:

"Much of the computation for the mission was performed on Earth and transmitted to the probe, where it was able to retain in memory up to five commands of the 222 possible entries by ground controllers"

That happened as late as March 2001 (and possibly even later, as communication was finally lost in January 2003): http://www.strobedata.com/home/pioneer10.html

Hasn't been heard from in 11 years, either. Maybe it crashed for all we know.

Voyager probes are still up and running but the power system has only perhaps one decade of useful life remaining as it declines.

It's an unusual question because you've not really defined the goal posts very well.

I know a lot of old pub quiz machines still running on Windows 2000.

However, the real question here is: Why are you using a piece of software that is 13 years old even though there are patches/updates for it?

It's worth ruling out embedded software.

The utilities (include the telecom companies too if you want) have a lot of assembly code written ages ago that they're afraid to touch. I suspect that's worth a good first look. I think 50 years is a reasonable guess.

The jacquard loom at the museum in France?

How about our very own jgc running calculation jobs from Charles Babbage?

If that's too historical then the chances are good it is written in Fortran, and being used by a cosmologist on a telescope somewhere up high.

For a lot of people in non-technical professions it might actually be Windows XP.

That is, of course, if we're putting aside some of the basic UNIX tools that probably haven't changed since the 1970s—which I think is fair.

I believe that honour goes to dc (if you're in linux, you can still use dc).

In Linux, "dc" will be GNU dc, which would have been written late 80s or early 90s, like most other GNU utilities. And it would have been maintained/modified over the years.

(A better example would be the bsdgames collection. It's a lot older and has barely been touched over the years.)

Nice find! Man page footer on current OS X says 1997-03-25.

I looked at some other man pages from ls, cat, tar and the like and the oldest that I found was rm, from January 28, 1999.

UPDATE! rmdir's man page is from May 31, 1993! Though I'm sure the actual code was updated since then.

I found some Perl code of my coworker's in a recent internal product. It had his name at the top of the file, and the year 1997. I mentioned it to him, so he pulled out the original in his ~/bin, and we diffed them.

The core program was unchanged, there were just some minor changes for this specific application (e.g. the path changed, and there was like one if block added for this purpose). So it was pretty much unchanged for over 15 years.

The safe bet would be on corporate/academic mainframe software. While lots have been patched or replaced, I bet there's code from the 70s (perhaps 60s) still running out there somewhere.

Let's put it this way: there's a market for teaching people how to program like it was 1975. Nobody around can do it anymore, and the code base is large enough that both the teaching and skillset are highly valued in some circles.

I know that some of the British Ports systems are running something written in Delphi 5 that's around 20 - 25 years old for their tickets.

Emacs was launched in 1976:


WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. Why? Because it rocks.

At work we have character-cell UI for financials. New applications plug in dynamically into the UI. I don't know how old the UI is, but company started in '78, and I believe that was their first UI. There are various new UI's, but power users run in character cell - it's fastest and all features enabled.

There are still PDP-11's out there running nuclear power plants:


Foxpro/Clipper Apps running on DOS , there are couple of shops using them still in India

We're still using a PDP11 with software written in 1981-84 to run parts our cyclotron.

The oldest stuff I've seen in use would be PDP-11s, Wangs, NetWare 3.x and assorted OS/2 Win 3.1 desktops.

I used 90s versions of Winamp and Xnews until I just stopped caring up local MP3s and USENET.

gkrellm-bfm. It has had a couple of patches in the past 10 years, so it's not strictly a fair candidate, but they were trivial.

bfm is 'bubblefishymon', a system monitor that packs a lot of info into a picture, being that of a fish tank. The level of the water represents RAM usage, the amount of bubbles indicates CPU usage, fish moving leftwards is network traffic in, fish moving rightwards is network traffic out, and there's even a floating rubber duck... which represents a duck!

Turbo C 3.0 is still used in many schools and colleges!

I was about to say that, thankfully I searched for Turbo before posting.

I know many who use many years old DOS based Tally, accounting software.

Still my most favorite IDE

Lotus notes!

You poor soul.

If we consider all forms of software. DNA is the oldest.

RNA is older.

When I use Windows, I tend to use PFE as a text editor.

I also used to be an avid PFE32 user, but I finally gave in to Notepad++, and have not regretted it.. you may want to check it out!

Thanks for the suggestion. I don't really use Windows anymore, but will keep it in mind. I do wish I could find a simple text editor with PFE32 like macro record and templates for OS X.

vi. Whenever I log on to a UNIX system, I end up using vi in some shape or form.

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