Over the weekend, I took it upon myself to get started on a much-procrastinated project: retrieving a couple of hard disks from an old desktop PC and pulling the data off them.
The first thing I had to do was to get an external casing with a built-in power supply unit. When I went to the stores and asked for a casing, I was offered a small casing by default, the sort used for laptop hard disk drives. Cue general bemusement when I said this was for the larger desktop variety. "Old school," whispered one chap to himself.
Another question that came up was, what the capacity of the disk was. When I told him, one held just short of 10 GB and the other 8 GB, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. I guess we're from different generations!
Coming to the point of this post, I was actually a little nervous about whether the two drives would even work. I had a lot of old data (photos and so on) that I really wanted to retrieve but I hadn't even turned on my old computer for at least five years. In the meantime, it had endured being stored in a forgotten corner gathering dust and being transported twice by a moving service. I wasn't that worried about retrieving my data as long as the disks would still spin.
But, glory be, both drives actually started spinning with that familiar but long-forgotten whir. When I connected them to my laptop, reading data wasn't a problem either. I was mighty impressed with the engineering that's gone into this, no credit to me for the sheer neglect.
I quickly backed up my files, then started going through my old treasures at leisure. Everything just worked. Even that Word document from 1998, those photographs from 2001, that music from 1999... I was even more impressed by this.
Hang on. Everything? No. Real Media files don't work. Is it because I don't have the right codecs installed? No, I checked that I have the latest versions of everything. They just don't work. Maybe that's the problem. I have the latest version of the codecs not the prehistoric versions. Who knows?
You know that external hard disk you've invested in to backup your stuff? Or that cloud-based service? None of that can save you from this fate. You'll have all the data you ever had and be unable to use some of it.
The sort-of-solutions to this are:
- If possible, work with data that use open file formats. This doesn't guarantee that your file will still be usable 5 years from now but at least it raises the odds. [Aside: Microsoft Office isn't truly open but it's become a de-facto standard now and I think backward compatibility is reasonably assured going back to Office 97.]
- Keep old software installers handy. This isn't always possible. Your old software programs might have been installed off the web. Or they may have come on a CD-ROM that you have long since turned into a coaster.
- Learn how to write software of your own!
These are only sort-of-solutions because you need to be a bit of a geek to make any of this work and, unfortunately, the world isn't only composed of geeks. Or you could go out and get your own captive geek to take care of this for you, but that only works for some people. What about everyone else?