Legacy software support is no reason to maintain outdated constructs

The debate and commentary has been quite lively concerning my idea to get rid of DOS drive letters from our midst. The worst argument so far is to maintain them to support legacy applications.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

Before you read this, go look at your calendar—electronic or paper. My calendar has the numbers 2013 at the very top. What numbers does yours have? I'll wait. OK, now that you're back, if yours has any year except 2013, then please stop reading and go play a few rounds of Pong or Breakout. For those of us who live in the present, this post is specifically for you. It seems that many well-meaning IT professionals believe (falsely) that Microsoft should maintain DOS drive letters to support legacy applications that rely on those drive letters for proper operation. Yeah, that's a great argument—let's maintain drive letters to support 20-year-old applications whose vendors can't update their lousy software.

I totally understand the illogic behind this argument. When I ran my own computer consulting firm (1995-2003), I, and my employees had to maintain legacy software for two reasons. One was because the vendors wouldn't or couldn't update their software to a non-DOS version or the users were too stuck in their ways to learn something new.

Notable applications included*:

  • WordPerfect
  • AutoCAD
  • Lotus 1-2-3
  • WordStar
  • PeachTree Accounting
  • DDMS

Those were painful times indeed. We also had to maintain AOL for some offices, which was a real joy most notably because I hated AOL, not because it was difficult to support. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately for me—previous support people couldn't make the great leap to Windows applications either.

I digress.

In 2013, if you're still using so-called legacy applications, DOS applications, or obscure software that hardly anyone supports, STOP IT. Find another vendor and get on board with something modern and useful. Yes, there will be a learning curve, but you can do it. I have confidence in you.

The argument that Microsoft can't move away from drive letters in its operating systems and applications is simply not true—not to mention utterly ridiculous. Of course they can.

Most users only know that they have an H: drive because you've told them that they do. But applications can be setup to save documents in any location or share without the user's knowledge. Why do users care about drive letters? Answer: They don't.

Users only care about doing their jobs with the applications, computers, and other resources that they need. I'm positive that very few of them are emotionally bound to the H: drive that you so expertly conceived and implemented for them.

Stating that Microsoft can't get rid of drive letters makes as much sense as saying we can't move away from 5.25" or 3.5" floppy disks. Oh wait, sorry, we did that didn't we?

But if I'd written that we need to ditch the floppy for flash, there'd be protest on that front too. You know it's true. 

"Oh Ken, you are such a rube. You can't be serious that we could actually stop using floppy disks. Think of how many thousands of users depend on them. Think of how many thousands of software programs are on floppies. How can you be so stupid? Ken, is it a slow news day on ZDNet or do you just make up this stuff?"

Floppies are gone.

Drive letters should be gone too.

You can lament their termination all you want. You can reminisce about the 'good ol' days', talk geek about "sneakernet", and generally annoy people like me who can't listen to such nonsense. I'll quickly walk out of the cubicle and go for a soda until you decide to get back to work. No one cares that you were there at the dawn of the PC, that you used CP/M on a Compaq luggable, or that you "remember a time when...". Please shut up and get back to work on your modern, not floppy-having systems that don't use any DOS applications.

To summarize, the lame argument that drive letters can't go away is just silly and incorrect. They can and will go away. The concept, 30+ years ago, worked. It no longer works. To imply that such a limitation is a requirement, is less than an intelligent argument.

If you think this is a great argument, let me present the argument to you as if it were a brand new thing that I came up with. Here goes.

Hey, ZDNet readers, I have a new plan. Instead of using mount points on partitions, I want to go to a new system that uses alphabet letters, you know, A through Z. Well, actually, you can't use A, B, C. The letter C is the default for your primary disk partition, which you now know as / (root). So, you have letters D through Z for other local partitions and network mapped locations.

Doesn't this new paradigm sound awesome? Sure, it does. Let me explain further before you judge too quickly.

Letters D through Z give you 23 whole possibilities for partitions and mapped locations to remote systems. 

So, your primary disk, where all of your software goes is the C: drive. If you have a second partition on your disk, just in case you want to separate your system software from other stuff, you'll have a D: drive. Your CD/DVD drive will be E: Any SD cards, USB flash drives, or other locally connected drives could be F: through whatever connections you can make. 

And, if you want to map remote shares, you'll have G: or H: or I: through Z: That's an amazing 18 or 19 letters left for everything. Who'll ever need more than that?

Sure, I know that right now, you have an unlimited number of possibilities for partitions and maps because you use that legacy mounting thing but come on, this is way better. Users will love having a drive letter to which they can refer.

Think of the possibilities. A common group of users can now discuss their M: drive over lunch or on break, while we, the awesome IT geniuses, can laugh at the way we used to mount and unmount partitions, disks, and remote file systems as if they were local. What were we thinking?

End of drive letter argument.

What, indeed, were we thinking?

Yes, I'm making light of the situation to illustrate how silly the drive letter limitation has become. Microsoft knows about the limitation and that's why you can now mount partitions and disks onto folders. It's not terribly difficult to do so but it's also not trivial either.

There's no reason to maintain DOS drive letters anymore. There's no argument good enough. There's no legacy software worth it. It's time to grow up. It's time to leave that part of the past behind us. Drive letters should only be the topic of geeky conversations that I'll walk away from. Sorry drive letter fans, it's time to birth a new legacy: Drive letters.

*Windows versions became available during those years. Some were available but clients wouldn't or couldn't use them for many reasons.

What do you think? Time to kill drive letters and legacy software? How long are we supposed to support outdated software and outdated constructs? Talk back and let me know.

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