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Watch out for Zombie Software!

Simon has been involved in software development since the days of paper tape. He has developed niche software for information management.

The modern zombie is a dead person brought back to life by magical means but lacking many of the characteristics of the living person, and acquiring some frightening ones, like a taste for human flesh. Like a zombie, application software can become undead – showing some signs of life but lacking some vital features, in particular help and support. It may not want to devour your brain, but like a zombie, it’s a dead man walking - unless it can be updated.

How Does Software Become Zombified?

Software can stop being updated and supported for many reasons. Probably the most common is that the person who created it has moved onto other things. A lot of software is created by individuals as a solitary activity – programmers often prefer to work alone. In their flush of enthusiasm, they will develop an application, make it available via the Web or from an App store, and promote its use through download sites like Softpedia and application websites. They may promote and support their software by responding quickly to any problems that users may report, and continuing to develop further releases of their application to enhance its performance. However, if enthusiasm fades, these activities may stop, but the software may still show up in searches and on download sites.

When software is developed by a company rather than an individual, there may be a similar result. Many small software companies are one-person operations and may no longer trade if the person decides they’ve had enough. If the company changes hands, the new owner may not have the same priorities and interests as the old one and may decide that they will no longer support a particular product.

Even if the company isn't small, development may stop for all kinds of reasons. Some financial software used by large banks and other organizations uses platforms that ceased to be active years ago. Because of the crucial nature of the software, corporations may decide to pay to have it supported by a third party long after the original supplier has ceased trading, as the task of replacing it by supported software is too daunting.

If the software costs anything, and online payment is used, the incentive to make it unavailable to search engines or download after support ceases diminishes still further, as income may still be received from anyone wishing to use it.

The open source model can harness enthusiasm from software developers all over the world and has generated some excellent software. If the software is downloaded from GitHub or SourceForge, it’s likely to be an open source product where the source code for the application is freely available and can be modified. If you strike a problem and have the skills and time, you can fix it yourself and let others benefit from your work by uploading the fix, if the license permits. However, the problem of waning enthusiasm can afflict open-source products as well – the message “I don’t maintain this product anymore” is not uncommon.

Where's the Support?

Lack of support may be the first sign that you have zombie software, but this is not confined to zombie products. Giant companies like Microsoft or Adobe are generally not worth contacting about particular problems with their products, as helpful replies are very unlikely to be received. However, their massive user base means that Googling may turn up a workaround for a problem or answer a particular question. These companies (and even some smaller ones) may also run forums for problems, which sometimes contain useful responses from company employees. Forums give a useful indication of software status – if there have been no postings for many years or nothing but complaints about non-responsiveness then you may be in zombieland.

By contrast, small companies often give remarkably good support. A general rule is that the smaller and more specialized the potential market is, the better the support. Open source software is a very mixed bag – you may receive excellent support or an aggressive brush-off.

Other Signs of Zombiedom

Here are a few pointers that may indicate that the software downloaded is in a zombie state:

  • The application executable is dated from many years ago. New versions of actively supported programs usually appear at least once a year.
  • The application supplier website (often accessed from the About menu) is not found or does not mention the downloaded application, or any application resembling the one you have downloaded.
  • Application help is unavailable. Help files for many applications are now web pages rather than files accessed locally, so unavailability indicates that the website is non-existent, the product has been superseded or the creator has not bothered to update the help link in the application.
If this is what you get when you click About, watch out!

If this is what you get when you click About, watch out!

How to Avoid Zombie Software

Download sites abound in zombie software. Sites usually rank themselves on the number of software products available and the number of downloads. They have little incentive to determine whether listed software is still current as removing products will reduce their ranking. The better sites perform independent reviews of listed products, which may observe that the product has not been updated for many years. The lower quality ones simply regurgitate what the vendor says about their product. However, if a download site indicates that a file has a very old release date this may because new versions have not been uploaded, rather than a newer version not existing. It’s always worth checking the vendors’s web site to see if there is a newer version of the software available.

Web applications rarely enter the zombie state for the simple reason that they cost something to keep operational. Although web server costs are low and falling, they are not zero, so when enthusiasm fades, the application usually disappears as well in order to save money.

Unlike desktop or mobile applications, one instance of a Web application is sufficient to service multiple users, making removal a simple operation – if the creator wishes do it. If the web application is popular enough, advertising income may keep it profitable after interest in development and support has ceased, although some of the advertisements may trigger malware filters and be on the tasteless side. The commonest support problem with web applications is missing functionality on some browsers and the standing advice for this problem is to try another browser.

What to do About Zombie Software?

Zombie status of an application may not be a problem – it may work as advertised in your current environment. But if your environment changes and the application stops working - you’re on your own. Environment changes are not confined to operating system upgrades – sometimes the installation of another application (or plug-in) can stop an application from working properly. Re-installing the operating system and installing only those applications that you currently use may help, but this could be days of work, with no guarantee of success.

If application software you rely on stops working and you discover that you've been running zombie software, the only option is to find another application that does what you want and install that. Search or download sites may be helpful, but make sure that you're installing yet another zombie.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.