Is Apple helping or hindering the 'forgotten century' of data?

Vint Cerf is sometimes called one of the "fathers of the Internet" for his role in developing the TCP/IP protocol suite that's in use on every Internet-connected device. So when he warns of a forgotten century of data, it's worth paying attention to. What's more, we've seen some of these dangers already, as Mac users — dangers we must stay vigilant for.

Bit rot

During a recent speech recounted at The Guardian, Cerf warned that bit rot will lead to a forgotten generation, or perhaps a forgotten century of data.

The bit rot that Cerf describes is what happens to data as it ages; software capable of reading it changes over time. Some software is discontinued. And we've seen it happen on the Mac, time and time again. Think Microsoft Word files are eternal? Talk to people trying to extract useful information from old FrameMaker templates or Aldus Freehand files.

These are more than just data files. They're the sum total of our creative output and our analytical output, our ability to interpret the world around us. Within data there is meaning and there is structure.

It is important to preserve what we do and how we do it for the posterity of future generations, the same way we learn about the creation of the cotton gin, harnessing of electricity, development of transcontinental railroads.

But this sort of preservation affects us on deeply personal levels, too.

A few weeks ago a customer came into the computer store I work at on the weekends. He was using a pre-Intel Macintosh; a PowerPC-based iMac that sported a copy of ClarisWorks, an integrated productivity software suite that Apple developed.

The Mac still worked, and that database still contained files he needed: A mailing list of donors to a non-profit charity he dedicated his time. If he bought a new Mac, how would he access the files? ClarisWorks doesn't run on Intel Macs anymore, because Apple itself stopped supporting the technology which allowed it to work when OS X Lion came out in 2011.

The solution, it turns out, is using a free software program called LibreOffice, an office productivity suite that actually supports ClarisWorks file imports.

This might make for an interesting Mac how to at some point, but the point is this: There was a way to transform the data and make it useable again, but it was several steps removed from the owner of the data simply being able to double-click on the file and expect something to happen. If we hadn't been able to intervene, what would have happened to his fund-raising efforts? Would they have changed? Would he have recreated the database from scratch?

That's one very real danger associated with the type of bit rot that Vint Cerf is talking about. Cerf, who's now a vice president at Google, advocates the development of what he calls "digital vellum," to help preserve the way old software and hardware works for the benefit of future generations.

Moving from PowerPC to Intel processors on the Macintosh forced Apple's hand here: Eventually the technology to smoothe out that transition, a translation technology called Rosetta, was deprecated in OS X. When that happened, people who needed access to apps that ran on PowerPC, and their datasets, were left behind.

Forced upgrades sometimes leave data behind

My ClarisWorks example is one case of Apple not doing the best job it can for customers. Certainly ClarisWorks is the most narrow edge case these days, but it's a real problem faced by a loyal Apple user.

Compare that to a more recent example, however: Apple discontinued iPhoto for iOS with the release of iOS 8. What's more, though, it prevented iOS 8 users from opening iPhoto at all, even if they owned it from a previous release.

Essentially, iOS 8 killed iPhoto and forced a messy transition to Photos. Text and layouts from certain projects you created with iPhoto were lost in the transition without any easy way to convert that data into another useable format.

Apple has shown that it's willing to impose short term discomfort to its users in order to employ a long-term strategy of iterative software and hardware improvement. That improves things for the widest possible audience, but it can have a profoundly disruptive effect on those of us who are not ready for the transition.

Apple must always, always be mindful of those people caught in the crossfire. Progress and profit should never get in the way of doing the right thing for the greater good.

Peter Cohen