Ensure Today's Data Are Readable Tomorrow

BY STANLEY ZAROWIN

When I started with computers in the 1980s, we had those 5 inch floppy disks—and they really were floppy. Then PCs and DOS came along with three-inch disks (and although they were still called floppies, there were no longer floppy). Now my new computer doesn’t even have a floppy slot. My concern is this: I have tons of business data stored in .doc and .xls formats on a bunch of CDs and, for safety, I also have copies on a remotely stored big hard drive. I also have loads of photos of my kids and grandkids stored in .jpg format on my home computer. But will tomorrow’s computers be able to read a CD or even my remote hard drive? Am I sounding like Chicken Little?

No, you’re raising critical questions that, for the most part, are being ignored by users and technology developers. Technology is moving so fast that at some point tomorrow’s computers and software will not be able to read today’s data. (By the way, it may surprise you to learn that the chemicals which coat CDs have an estimated shelf life of 5 to 10 years; after that, they will be unreadable by any software.)

Later this year, when Microsoft is scheduled to introduce its new Vista operating system and office suite, both the .doc and .xls formats will be retired. However, Microsoft promises that the new formats, which will fully incorporate Extensible Markup Language (XML), still will be able to read the old .doc and .xls formats. My question is, though: For how long?

I think it’s safe to assume that each major software advance will be compatible with at least the immediate two or three past technologies. So if you want to protect your digital data, keep your software up to date and recopy all your archived data into the new format every time you upgrade.

Important : I’d advise against skipping even one technology upgrade. If your archive is more than one technology step behind, you may find that not all your data are upgradable or digital errors are introduced when you do copy them.

Is such a process tantamount to wearing a belt and suspenders? Yes, it is a very conservative approach. But aren’t the snapshots of your grandkids worth it?

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