Fading Away Into Oblivion

Floppy Disk DriveRecently Toshiba called it quits with HD DVD. This means that the million plus people who gambled on the format now have movies and data whose time in this world is short. Any data on a HD DVD disk now needs to be moved elsewhere while readers are still available. This isn’t the first time a format has come and gone. It happened with Beta cassettes back in the VHS vs. Beta war. Cassette tapes largely replaced by CDs, vinyl records have become harder to find. An old magnetic tape drive or even older paper tape reader is pretty much only to be found in museums. Punch cards have long since left this world. It will not be much longer before you will have to mail in 35mm film to get pictures developed. 35mm used to be a common format, but has nearly been replaced by digital cameras. Digital methods of adding simulated film grain will likely convert the few holdouts. With Blu-ray’s recent victory in the format wars, the DVD’s days are numbered, just as VHS tapes’ days have been for a while.

Paper Table RealDo you remember Magneto-Optical drives? 8 inch floppies? 5 1/4 inch floppies? 3 1/2 inch floppies? 110 cartridge film? 8-track tape? Ever had to program with punch cards? All things that your children will probably never encounter, and if you told them how much data they could store, they probably wouldn’t believe anything could hold that little. Today would you buy a 100MB drive? The same fate will come to Blu-Ray, USB disk drives, and the one terabyte drive with the new drive smell. All these formats will be obsoleted before long, or will be too small to be worth using. Sure when a format changes, the older format hangs around for a while, and during that transition period it is easy to move data from one format to another. But, do we take advantage of the window of opportunity?

In a recent move, just about all my VHS and cassette tapes went to be recycled. I’m sure there were items that I would have enjoyed watching or listening to again, but it was too much clutter to move, and would have taken too long to transfer. With items like USB flash drives, and hard drives, it is a bit easier to transfer their contents to new and larger drives. But there are always a few items that get forgotten about, until they reappear in some spring cleaning. In the move, I discovered a few 5 1/4 inch floppies from college, but had no computer with a drive that could read them. It will not be much longer before my few remaining 3 1/2 floppies will be unreadable due to lack of drive, or as recently discovered because the data is no longer readable due to deterioration.

How many of you have had the pleasure of finding a picture of your great-great grandparents buried away in some pile of papers? The picture may have been a little discolored, but was definitely viewable, and at least renewable by getting it retouched. But when your great-great grandchildren are going through your old storage formats, what are they going to find that will remind them of you? Pictures buried away in an antique 16 gigabyte USB flash drive will likely remain buried away. Maybe the drive itself will be turned into a retro-locket with a new picture inside, but your pictures will likely never be discovered. Since your great-great grandchildren will be comfortable with petabytes (a million times bigger than gigabyte), something that can hold only 16 gigabytes will seem pretty primitive, and USB definitely won’t stand for Universal Serial Bus in their time.

As we will talk about in a later article, it is not just the storage medium that becomes obsolete, but the way they are stored as well. You can read text files from way back when, but how about a Microsoft Word 1.0 document? Will your great-great grand children’s browsers be able to open your HTML 4.0 pages in their browser? And how will it look when it is rendered? Probably no where near what it looks like now in your browser of today.

What are you doing to future proof your pictures, thesis, essays, and deep thoughts? What storage have you found buried away that now contains unknown treasures?

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