Outdated Platforms: When Should You Drop Legacy Support?

Software ages, initiatives grow harder to justify, and ultimately, you're stuck having to make a tough decision about your technology—one that might frustrate or anger your members. When it comes to dropping legacy support, what's the decision-making process? (Hint: In a lot of ways, it's kind of like game theory.)

In this space, I talk often about the things that show signs of success and innovation, but it helps sometimes to talk about when it’s time to cut bait.

Last week, a handful of mainline tech firms found themselves having to discuss making challenging moves in the name of broader strength:

Google is doing very well with its Chromebooks these days, thanks in part to their prowess in the education world. So what’s the problem? Well, to maximize the laptops’ capabilities, the company is looking to put Android apps on them. Thing is, many Chromebooks, most notably the first generation of the company’s high-powered Pixel, released in 2013, aren’t getting Android support. Apparently it’s not a hardware problem, but rather a complication of trying to get older code bases up to snuff.

Jawbone, known for its array of mobile accessories, was a first-mover in the fitness-tracker market, offering up an array of at-times experimental designs. However, other competitors like Fitbit, Pebble, and Apple have since offered their own takes on this product—whether in watches or as standalones—and Fitbit in particular has beat Jawbone at its own game. Now, according to Tech Insider, Jawbone has sold off its remaining inventory and is reportedly trying to pivot toward high-end wearables meant for the healthcare market. (If you’ve see a bunch of Jawbone devices on Groupon recently, this is why.)

PayPal last week announced it would stop producing versions of its payment app for a variety of mobile platforms, including BlackBerry, Windows Phone, and Amazon’s Fire devices. On top of this, it was requiring users on Android and iOS to upgrade to the latest version of the PayPal app. “It was a difficult decision to no longer support the PayPal app on these mobile platforms, but we believe it’s the right thing to ensure we are investing our resources in creating the very best experiences for our customers,” Joanna Lambert, PayPal’s VP of global consumer product and engineering, said in a blog post.

And most notably, Microsoft made what was probably a painful decision to “streamline” its Windows Phone offering, a likely result of the company’s inability to make an impact outside of a handful of niche markets. (The Surface, which shares some of the phone’s DNA, has had better luck.) While not giving up on the platform, Microsoft appears to have essentially conceded that the Windows Phone won’t be the next iPhone. “We are focusing our phone efforts where we have differentiation—with enterprises that value security, manageability, and our Continuum capability, and consumers who value the same,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a news release.

Tough Decisions, Tough Questions

These examples, although varying in impact and what they say about the technology left behind, have one thing in common: Each decision was made to shake off a legacy part of the company’s business that could cause problems in the future.

And while associations generally aren’t in the hardware business (though there are exceptions), these concerns are likely to grow as legacy support increases. These are the kinds of related questions associations are facing:

Tough Questions = Easier Decisions

As these questions arise (and playing into the “ask better questions” trend we’ve had on this website of late), I have a few of my own to recommend that associations consider as they ponder these broader issues:

How will change affect your users? If you choose to make a technology upgrade of some kind—be it your website, your email marketing provider, or your association management system—how transparent are these changes to your users? Will a redesign make their lives harder, or will the change be invisible to them if done correctly? Would the change you’re considering inconvenience any of your members? And, if so, how many?

Is the current approach hurting the bottom line? Jawbone’s experience is telling. Google and Microsoft are strongly diversified businesses, but Jawbone produces just a handful of things, and those fitness trackers … well, they aren’t selling for them. At which point do you read the tea leaves and say to yourself, “This isn’t working?”

What, ultimately, benefits more people? If your association’s app is designed to work with earlier versions of iOS, but it holds back your ability to take advantage of technical features that you think will make the app a better and more secure experience for your users, you might need to check your stats and decide: Do we keep the iPhone 4 users happy, or do we force them to upgrade because the benefits of the change outweigh the short-term hassle?

How much are you inconveniencing your users? One thing about the Chromebook news that particularly frustrates me is that I bought my wife one of the Chromebook models that doesn’t support the Android (that specific model was well-regarded and well-reviewed). On the other hand, as long as the Chromebook continues to do what it was advertised as being able to do, my wife probably won’t even notice. It’s likely Google did some research and found that a lot of owners of older Chromebooks wouldn’t miss the snazzy new feature. If you’re thinking of ending support for a legacy product, ask yourself: How much are your users going to care?

Do the costs outweigh the benefits? This is the biggest one on the list. Ultimately, every technology decision you make has to be made in context of the financial costs that come with it. For example, there’s nothing stopping your association from creating software for a fairly obscure, out-of-date platform like the Amiga—except that it would cost a lot of time and money, and only a small handful of users would even take advantage of the offering. Put this in context of PayPal’s decision with BlackBerry and Windows Phone, and suddenly, the move is a little easier to explain.

Legacy Support as Game Theory

If I had to compare this approach to something, I would say it’s a form of game theory: a game where you need to keep your users happy without harming your long-term business goals and stability.

Recently, Microsoft earned some grumbles from users it was trying to get to upgrade to Windows 10 by changing the way a dialog box worked. It was a little sneaky, and nobody wants to be tricked into doing anything. But questionable or not, there was a sound business reason behind the move: It’s easier to support a user on an updated platform than an outdated one.

I don’t recommend you trick your members into doing anything they don’t want to do—transparency always wins. But ultimately, your technology offerings are underpinned by your business needs.

There’s always a time where you need to stop what you’re doing and change course.

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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