End of life: software-induced obsolescence and wastes?

Thierry Leboucq

The end of life stage of a software can be tough to apprehend and manage; this is why today we are focusing exclusively on this stage of the life cycle in an article that complete our Software LCA series.

Find the complete Methodological Guide to software LCA as well as a use case on assessment of an application’s environmental impacts.

Software hides to die (end of life & obsolescence)

The end of life stage of a software is especially hard to apprehend in the life cycle assessment, specifically for the two following reasons:

1) Obsolescence as such doesn’t actually exist for software. Indeed, theoretically a software is endlessly usable, as long as hardware exists to make it work. Software doesn’t recognize wear and doesn’t break down because it has become too old itself. As a consequence, we cannot properly predetermine a software lifetime duration, as it is linked to its components degrading throughout time. The only explanations to software obsolescence are external to the software itself:

  • user’s choice to delete it,

  • maintenance policy of a version,

  • obsolescence of hardware supporting the software,

  • obsolescence of other software interacting with the software we analyze (exploitation system, database…),

  • disappearance of the user’s need

  • etc.

2) A software doesn’t seem like it is generating any physical waste in its end of life stage. Whenever we decide not to use it anymore - or when we cannot use it - it is simply deleted from the terminal on which it is installed, without generating any physical waste. In the worst case scenario, there are remaining files uselessly occupying disk space. But in reality, if we have a closer look, we can find physical wastes (wastes from the design and development stage - CD + package + user guide in paper form if the software was packaged - taken into consideration in other stages of the analysis), and more specifically hardware-related wastes (computer, smartphone, tablet, network equipment…) generated from the use of hardware, required to make the software work.

But the question is: how does software contribute to generating wastes? Well simply with its direct or indirect impact on hardware obsolescence:

Replacement or software update requiring new equipments:

For a similar user’s need, if the software goes through a major update or if it is replaced with another software, plus if this operation requires additional physical resources (more powerful machines, different technologies), then we can consider older hardware as software-induced waste. This is a phenomenon of « hardware obsolescence » caused by software renewal: hence, software is reponsible for the wastes. A mature software (with no functional evolution) has no reason to spearhead wastes… But what software doesn’t evolve, right? It’ll be necessary to watch consumption of resources required by the new software versions.

Wrong uninstallation:

An uninstallation process that is badly executed - or badly applied - can contribute to obsolescence as well. Indeed, registry keys are left out, temporary files too; if the software modifies the system, it remains a residual footprint which makes the system heavier.

Side effects of uninstallation on other software:

You also need to pay attention to other software as uninstallation can make them obsolete: dependences can exist, which could lead to a cascade effect of obsolescence (I update my software => it requires a newer version of database manager => this manager requires an OS update => the newer OS doesn’t have the printer pilot anymore => I have to change of printer…).

As we see, the end of life stage of a software can be tricky to apprehend. Nonetheless, it’d be useful to conduct a quick first estimation in order to determine the importance of its relative weight compared to other stages.

This serie on software LCA is now complete, you can find on the blog the previously published articles on the same subject:

You can also have access to the Methodological Guide to software LCA, downloadable for free on our website, as well as a use case on environmental impacts of an application.

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