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Old 07-03-2007, 10:32 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Legacy formats are ticking time bomb for lost data

According to a BBC News story, "The growing problem of accessing old digital file formats is a 'ticking time bomb', the chief executive of the UK National Archives has warned." It is probably fortunate that librarians and archivists are on the early edge of dealing with such problems. Firstly, because they tend to be more equipped and more determined to find solutions. And, secondly, because they carry much more weight with the public.

E-book readers are well aware that there is not only a format longevity issue, but that it is greatly compounded by the addition of DRM, in conjunction with the rapid changes in computing technologies and platforms.

Amazingly, Microsoft's UK head Gordon Frazer warned of a looming "digital dark age". He added: "Unless more work is done to ensure legacy file formats can be read and edited in the future, we face a digital dark hole." So there is now another war for the preservation of documents in open formats. Microsoft "has developed a new document file format, called Open XML, which is used to save files from programs such Word, Excel and Powerpoint." On the other side of the spectrum is the "Open Document Format".

Throw those together with all the reflowable e-book standards and you have a real alphabet soup of formats. Will we ever see sanity in the e-book and document worlds? Good question!
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Old 07-03-2007, 10:39 PM   #2
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I hope someday we will see ebook standards change to removing DRM and one open format. I want to be able to purchase a book and read it on my current reader and if I someday want a new reader, take the books as is to the new reader without any issues.
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Old 07-03-2007, 10:45 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bob Russell View Post
Throw those together with all the reflowable e-book standards and you have a real alphabet soup of formats. Will we ever see sanity in the e-book and document worlds? Good question!
Good question Bob. I think the disentropic force here is the massive effort people are making to devise format converters. One of them even breaks the DRM on lit files! Maybe in the future we will see specialized websites catering to format information and the download of conversion tools.

For most of us, the history of computing is largely encompassed by our lifetimes. Still, I know one engineer in Seattle who makes enough money to keep his private twin-engined plane docked at his private pier on Lake Washington. What does he do? He make a business of converting archaic database files to new formats. When he is not doing that he is flying his plane or counting his money.
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Old 07-03-2007, 10:50 PM   #4
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File formats are only part of the problem. Disk and OS formats are also involved.

I just came across a box of old Apple ][ disks in the basement from the early 1980s. Setting aside that the machine itself has been out of production for over 20 years, even the few surviving 5.25" floppy drives cannot read the disk format without special programs (if there are even such things anymore for Apple disks.) Plus even if I had the ability to read the disks would the data still be there or would they be like the old cassette music tapes from that era and and just hiss at me?

Thankfully (for me) there was nothing on the disks that I needed (or wanted) after all this time.
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Old 07-04-2007, 12:27 AM   #5
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5.25" disks make dandy clock faces, though.
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Old 07-04-2007, 12:28 AM   #6
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And a 2.5" disk can double as a coaster.
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Old 07-04-2007, 12:28 AM   #7
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My all-time favorite legacy format story.

Quote:
To give you an estimation of the difference in the original and
what we have today: the original was probably entered on cards
commonly known at the time as "IBM cards" (Do Not Fold, Spindle
or Mutilate) and probably took in excess of 100,000 of them. A
single card could hold 80 characters (hence 80 characters is an
accepted standard for so many computer margins), and the entire
original edition we received in all caps was over 800,000 chars
in length, including line enumeration, symbols for caps and the
punctuation marks, etc., since they were not available keyboard
characters at the time (probably the keyboards operated at baud
rates of around 113, meaning the typists had to type slowly for
the keyboard to keep up).
Everybody, happy--

Independence Day (U.S.)
Thanksgiving Day (UK)
Indians Fixed Your IE 6 Bug And Traffic Has Doubled Day (Rockville)

--
depending where you are.
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Old 07-04-2007, 12:39 AM   #8
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We've got a whole box of those cards at work -- totally blank and untouched. I nicked a few (with managerial blessings) for my collection.
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Old 07-04-2007, 04:19 AM   #9
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I've got an 8" floppy disk in my "curiosities" collection. People are amazed to learn that something that large held only 175kb .
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Old 07-04-2007, 06:21 AM   #10
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This is a really old issue. NASA had issues a few years ago because of all the data they had on old 9-track tape - but couldn't find a machine that was capable of reading them.

Yet another reason for open formats, making it easy to convert when an old format goes away in favor of a better one.
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Old 07-04-2007, 06:22 AM   #11
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Quote:
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I've got an 8" floppy disk in my "curiosities" collection. People are amazed to learn that something that large held only 175kb .
I still have a 5.25" floppy drive sitting around. It makes a wonderful paperweight (and a great conversation piece).
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Old 07-04-2007, 07:26 AM   #12
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I remember learning programmig on an old IBM 360 with punch cards for input and 14 inch removable platter hard disks. 10 disk removable platter set for 200MB
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Old 07-04-2007, 09:54 AM   #13
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I even remember news stories when I was first programming. It had warnings of how computing costs were going to rise because of expected increases in the price of paper, and therefore the cost of all the blank punch cards!
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Old 07-04-2007, 11:44 AM   #14
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I'd love to have an 8" disk, and I'd never heard of a nine-track tape!
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Old 07-04-2007, 11:51 AM   #15
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9 track tape was the standard for all IBM mainframes (read System 360 or 370.) RCA used a 7 track tape for their computers. Each track held one bit and all of them together held one byte.
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