Random binary breakage and a rant on compatibility

I enjoy an occasional video game. However, I am by no means a "gamer", as evidenced by the fact that I don't have a copy of a single proprietary game published later than 2002. Rather, I enjoy open-source games like Battle For Wesnoth, vintage games such as Bandit Kings of Ancient China and Wing Commander, and the occasional old strategy game, such as my old Loki games for Linux. I also have a soft spot for emulated console games for the NES and Super NES. I even break out an emulator for my old PlayStation disks every now and then.

Well, the other day the mood struck me to play one of my old PSX games, so I clicked the icon for the ePSXe PlayStation emulator in my application menu and waited...and waited...and waited. And it never came up. So I tried running it from a command prompt and...nothing happened. And when I say "nothing", I mean nothing - no error message or output of any kind. I just got my command prompt back immediately.

Mind you it had been a while since I'd used ePSXe, but there was no immediately obvious reason why it should fail. It's installed in my home directory and has been sitting there, fully configured, for over a year. I used it regularly for a few weeks back in September and October and it worked perfect. Absolutely nothing has changed with it.

Fortunately, a little Googling turned up this thread in the Ubuntu forums. Apparently the ePSXe binary is compressed with UPX. After installing the upx-ucl-beta package via apt-get and running upx -d /path/to/epsxe to decompress the binary, it worked as expected. Apparently something about running UPX-compressed binaries changed between Ubuntu Feisty and Gutsy. I have no idea what, though.

This actually leads into one of the things that really annoys me about Linus: binary compatibility. It's also one of the reasons I prefer to stick with open-source software on Linux when at all possible.

In the Windows world, binary compatibility between releases is pretty good. Granted there are always some applications that break, but given the sheer volume of code out there, Microsoft does a good job keeping that number relatively small. In fact, if you've ever heard any of Raymond Chen's stories of application breakage between releases, you know that the Windows app compatibility team sometimes goes to truly heroic lengths to enable badly broken applications, many of which never should have worked in the first place, to keep functioning when a bug they depended on is fixed. The sample chapter (PDF) from Raymond's book has some really great examples of this.

In the Linux world, on the other hand, nobody seems to give a damn about maintaining compatibility. If you have a binary that's a few years old, it may or may not work on a current system. And if it doesn't, sometimes you can massage it into working, as was the case with ePSXe this time, and sometimes you can't. Not that this should be surprising: some developers in the Linux world are so lazy they won't even allow you to change the paths to application support files - they just hard-code them into the binary at compile-time with preprocessor defines! If they don't care if you can install the same binary in /usr or $HOME, why should they care if it works between distributions or even releases of the same distro? The attitude seems to be, "Well, it's open-source anyway, so who cares how compatible the binaries are?"

But if we're going to be honest, even being open-source only goes so far. Actively-maintained apps are usually OK, but have you ever tried to build an application that hasn't been maintained in 7 or 8 years from source? It's pretty hit and miss. Sure, if I really needed the app, had lots of spare time on my hands, and was familiar with the programming language and libraries it used, I could always fix it to build in an up-to-date environment. But for a regular user, that's simply not an option. (And even for a programmer it may well be more trouble than it's worth.)

But as annoying as I find the general lack of compatibility, as much as I wish I could just run a damn executable without having to cross my fingers, I can understand why things are they way they are. Quite simply, maintaining compatibility is hard. It takes care and diligence and it can make it hard to fix certain problems or make certain types of improvements. And really, when you're not getting paid for your work and have no real obligation to your users, you have to ask yourself if it's worth the effort. Heck, even many commercial vendors aren't that serious about backward-compatibility. Is it really reasonable to expect a loose association of unpaid volunteers to be any better?

But that's enough ranting for tonight. There are ups and downs to every software system. I'm just disgruntled that everything in my personal Linux-land seems to be 5 times more difficult than it needs to be lately.

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