An In-depth Look: Backward Compatibility

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What is backward compatibility?

In a nutshell, a product or service that is compatible with older equipment or software applications. For example, did you know that if you have Windows 8 installed on your PC, it is compatible with Microsoft Office versions 2013, 2010 and even 2007? Also, the new consoles for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are not backward compatible for older games, much to the dismay of many disappointed gamers.

How does backward compatibility affect me?

>Well, for one thing, technology is pretty expensive. Most people in developed countries today own more than one tech tool that they use on a daily basis. In Western countries, many people purchase new electronics or software applications approximately every two years. This is driven partly by the product’s obsoleteness, as there is always a newer version of everything coming onto the market these days. The consumer culture around technology has also changed as well in recent years. Waiting in line overnight in front of an Apple store just to be among the first buyers of the latest “iThings” is commonplace. However, the ongoing global recession has slowed down consumer buying habits. Even though some analysts say the economy is getting better, consumers continue to be thrifty. More people want to get the most out of their older electronics they already own, so they want technology that can be backward compatible.

Is backward compatibility a new thing?

No, not necessarily. The movement towards more compatibility for older technology began to pick up a few years ago in the developing world. It is not uncommon to see people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who have owned their mobiles for seven or eight years, and their operating systems are most likely outdated. This is because the cost of buying a new electronic can be prohibitive. We have seen many of our clients in developing countries using computers that almost ten years old. Although mobile technology use is growing rapidly in these areas of the world, most of the time they are older versions that are not compatible with newer technology.

Are there other benefits to backward compatibility?

Yes, it is better for the environment. Technology that is energy efficient, backward compatible and accessible allows for older electronics to be more useful for longer and reduce e-waste.

So why aren’t more tech firms creating backward compatible technology?

Twofold – tech firms are in the business of making money. Some would argue that more people buying less products wouldn’t be good for the bottom line, although there is another argument that some consumers would be more loyal to firms that produce technology that is more compatible. The other big issue is that it is not cheap or easy to make backward compatible products for the firm. In the end, the product might end up being more expensive for the consumer. Also, with technology changing so frequently, it can be hard to build products that can be useful one year from now, let alone five or ten years down the road. While there are many people in the tech sector and civil society thinking about new ways to make technology compatible for all, this will surely be a much needed discussion for the foreseeable future.

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