About a month ago, foo left a comment asking a fairly straightforward question: Are terminal applications becoming less prevalent, as Web-based services and cheap, powerful PCs become more common?
The answer I gave then was just off the cuff, but in the month since foo asked it, the question has been rolling around in my head. And then today, Xyzzy left a note mentioning that the home page for fttps has gone offline — taking with it the source code for that application and others — only a year after Blice originally posted there.
There’s no real correlation between the two events, but for someone like me who prefers life at the CLI, it does seem worrisome. In the time since foo’s original comment, I began making a list — three lists actually, one for console projects which were still very active, one for projects that had obviously sputtered and died, and one where the programs had achieved code Nirvana. That last one is my way of saying what I originally suggested in my reply to foo — that perhaps in some cases, there just weren’t any more features to add and weren’t any more bugs to chase.
For example — and all of these are footnoted with the phrase “to the best of my knowledge” — rtorrent is still under heavy development, and that’s probably the strongest example to the contrary. At the time of this writing, there had been an update to the trunk source code within 25 hours — in other words, on or very near Christmas Day. Most people I know who are even remotely influenced by Western culture are sitting at home, stuffing their faces with leftovers in the hours that follow Christmas Day.
So for a program — a console program, no less — to be getting updates that recently and in that particular bracket of time suggests to me avid pursuit. Midnight Commander is another example; The prerelease version I put together was stamped “stable” less than 48 hours ago — again, on or around Christmas Day. There are others, and I could cite any heavily used console application as an example to the contrary — vim. irssi. Even centerim is quite active, with the 4.22.9 update less than two weeks ago.
But for every one that I mention I have to acknowledge that there are some that have no pulse. I mentioned beeswax a while back; there’s a program with potential that doesn’t seem to be moving forward. cplay is a classic example of a popular but evaporated application; that one is so dead even the home page has disintegrated. Raggle gets mentioned as a newsreader a lot, but apparently stalled in 2005. Again, there are plenty of examples.
And those perfect programs, the ones that don’t need updating? My list gets a little fuzzy in there.
It is true though, that a lot of the software I use on a daily basis is 3 or 4 years old, and sometimes it’s hard to tell a hiccup from a year-long break. hnb, which I’m looking at right now, is a release from March 2003 — and I will admit wholeheartedly that that’s old. I won’t argue with you if you accuse me of using outdated software because that, friends and neighbors, is a dusty old program. Is there an update coming? Who knows.
But that doesn’t make it any less useful or stable. It only becomes an issue when it stops compiling or running, because the software that supports it is developing out of pace. So I can only assume that one day, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, I’ll get segmentation faults from hnb when I try to start it, sort of like I do from elmo.
But again — and this is the third qualification in a row now — any project, console or graphical, always runs the chance of finding a new direction or new leadership. And that’s the best thing anyone can hope for, for any “dusty old program.” Elmo got lucky a month ago and found someone willing to adopt it, and perhaps even something like cplay will too, if Daniel finds the time and desire to flesh it out further.
The phenomenon isn’t confined to console applications either; I’ve been begging and pleading with the Internet for years for some talented coder to pick up the corpse of ObMenu and keep it up to date with the changes in Openbox. It hasn’t happened yet and the home page is the same one I’ve been looking at since late 2005, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility. iDesk is another that could probably benefit from a little encouragement, since it’s been the same codewise as it was when I first found it in Ubuntu in November 2005.
I’m not a coder, so in that sense, it’s completely pointless and even a tiny bit rude for me to suggest that certain programs need attention. I’m not in a position to fix anything, so my opinion amounts to nil.
But I do know, and believe in, this: Open source software has many beautiful and amazing advantages over the closed-source model. And only one of those benefits is the idea — no, the proven principle that, 10 or 20 or even 50 years down the road, someone might pick up some crusty old tarball off a backup server somewhere in a forgotten university somewhere on the planet, take a look at the source code and add a new spark of life to an otherwise lusterless, forgotten application.
Old programs don’t die, they just patiently await reincarnation.