Some people reading this may have at some point wondered why the hard drive in their computer is the C: drive, not A or B, not the first but third. The answer of course is obsolescence, not planned but natural as technology has progressed.
I remember computers at school where the whole front of what would today be considered a desktop computer was just a pair of floppy disk drives, 5 1/4″ drives they were at the time, flat black plastic flexible squares that needed to be handled with care and would probably today just about hold a single grainy picture from a basic cameraphone. I also remember the rise of 3 1/2″ floppy disks, the 1.44Mb disks which were the HD of their day – High Density that was. These were the contents of the now abandoned A: and B: drives. The problems of getting Windows 3.0 to read a new-fangled CD-ROM drive is a story for another time.
The thing is that today if I wanted to read something from one of these 5 1/4″ disks it would be difficult, if not impossible. You can still buy external drives to read 3 1/2″ disks but how long before they’re gone too? Admittedly much of the information I still have on these old disks is past its prime and most of the really important stuff I still have on my laptop today but some of it would be as good as gone forever if I didn’t transfer it to today’s media. Even today’s storage has a finite life; hard drives die, home-burned CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs don’t last forever although new developments are on the horizon that claim to make disks that last for 1,000 years – we’ll see, or rather we won’t, but someone on a future edition of Time Team will and they’ll laugh at our clothes and feeble social networks and search engines.
Or will they? The other problem with that old data on floppy disks is whether we have something to read it with. Years ago we had a plethora of different wordprocessor file formats, spreadsheet formats, image formats and some of them, like JustWrite are as illegible to Microsoft Word today as Spanish is to me. Qué? Unless someone bothers to devise a universal convertor to rescue all these obscure file formats then the data is doomed.
I still have the ability to install the old software and manually copy over the text to LibreOffice which I use because it uses what has to be the future of our data – standardised formats and structures. Many software packages still use proprietary formats for the raw data but can output a sharable and standard format – like JPEG images or MP4 video, whilst many office packages are moving to open standards like the Open Document Format which should extend the amount of time our letters and journals, notes and novels remain readable. Then there’s the cloud again, services like Google Docs, Flickr, Facebook or Evernote storing data for you without needing to worry about file formats. As long as the host is still there and the internet is still there your data could exist indefinitely if your account is passed down with the inheritance when you leave for the cloud yourself.
Which is a sobering thought, better get the to do list finished or it could become a puzzling historical artefact.