Business, Gadgets, Tech

The Ghosts of Software Past

I remember when all software came on magnetic floppy disks, sometimes on one, but later on many and even installing Windows 3.11 required a large number of disk changes, you couldn’t just set it going and leave it like today. I still have a copy of that version of Windows and of Borland C++ which came with a huge box of reference books and a similarly huge number of disks – both the smaller 3.5″ ones and the older 5.25″ ones – you really felt like you were getting your money’s worth. You’d put the first disk in and wait for what seemed like an eternity until the installer would flash a message up saying “Please insert disk 2” and you’d search through the stack if you’d somehow shuffled them and hope that it wasn’t missing – either not supplied, or lost if you were reinstalling. Then the waiting would continue and repeat until disk 10.  Fun times.

Since then we’ve been through CDs and DVDs and now thanks to high speed broadband you can even download a whole operating system in just a few small hours, or so it seemed to me when I did it a couple of months back with Windows 10. At each stage it was possible to shortcut the earlier process by copying the floppy disks onto a single CD, and then later copying whole CDs onto a large USB stick or portable hard drive though Windows can still use a DVD to install.

Because of all the disks, and the boxes in which to distribute them manufacturers in the past couldn’t keep selling old versions of software due to the manufacturing costs and the space required to warehouse them though some companies such as Serif would sell old versions cheaply alongside new ones for a while. Today though with downloadable software they can keep supplying old versions for much longer which is useful when you have old hardware that needs old software. Sometimes you’ll have an old computer that won’t run a 64 bit version of windows for example but new software won’t work on 32 bit windows, the newer version is incompatible with all or part your computer, or, as I found out, you buy an old negative scanner and the software disk that came with it was unreadable and the current version won’t work, luckily though the manufacturer still sells the old one via their website – preventing the new hardware becoming an expensive paperweight, or in the scanner’s case doorstop.  Many freeware, shareware or low cost independent software authors have an archive of old versions on their websites.

In other cases old, usually free, software or device drivers that have been rendered obsolete or the manufacturer has just decided not to continue developing them anymore can still be obtained via individuals uploading and archive copy to a download service. Again this is helpful as some older utilities have been replaced by newer, slower, clunkier “improved” replacements and you don’t have the option of the old program you liked – where the old version is either automatically upgraded or doesn’t come with a new operating system or application. This may also be true for paid for applications so long as you have the correct licence to install them.

Then there are the people who have managed to get really old software to run on modern PCs, like a Windows 3 emulator for that nineties computing experience. I had a Super Nintendo emulator to play games on my PC once but it just wasn’t the same so I bought a second hand real one instead.

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Meta, Science, Society, Tech

Format This

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch flopp...

English: 8-inch, 5,25-inch, and 3,5-inch floppy disks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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