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Examples of Obsolete File Formats? 159

reedk writes "I was having a discussion with my boss about long-term archives, and we got on the topic of older files becoming un-readable by newer versions of software. Not only are those old Ami pro files unreadable by today's common word processors, but I have heard that newer version of Office can't consistently open very old versions of Office documents. With the increasing retention periods being forced by current and coming regulations, this could become a problem of compliance in the future. We want to pursue this topic, but to build support for it internally, I am looking for examples of older file formats that are no longer readable by newer version of the same software or due to the market death of the product. If true, this would lend a lot of force behind moving to products that have an open file format. Can Slashdot readers come up with examples of this, or ways they have had to get around these kinds of problems?"
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Examples of Obsolete File Formats?

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  • Easy as that. I guess PDF/PS is common enough too stay for long, and it's possible too make all prints become PDFs.
    • Allthought not usable for all kinds of data I guess, but do you expect to find a format which can handle them all? I guess that atleast as long as you stay with free software you can find out HOW the format worked. With a proprietarian(spelling..) fileformat you might be screwed.
    • text, no formatting. Even my apple //e could save text files. the media is usually a bigger problem than the data document.

      pdf is good but make certain you have an older reader, old os and old machine to run it on.

      you could always encode it with alphabits as well. just glue to 8 1/2 by 11 paper and you're set.
    • I think the author of this story is looking for reasons to get his/her boos to store stuff in PDF format.
  • Pee....
    • Pee.... Dee.... Eff....

      PDF itself actually seems like a nice idea, and one which no real competition has yet come along to challenge (even the biggest alternative, PostScript, never really took off as anything but a printer language).

      People just need to use the default choice of fonts, and avoid any features not in 4.0. 5.0 doesn't suck too badly, but moving to 6? Pain! I have better uses of my time than to wait over a full minute (on a reasonably new machine) just to read something comparable in con
      • I agree with many of your points, particularly the pain associated w/ V6 of Acrobat Reader. V7 is MUCH faster. The biggest benefit of PDF over the image formats you're so fond of is the fact that PDF can encapsulate text in a searchable and extractable format.
  • Necessary. (Score:3, Informative)

    by FireFlie ( 850716 ) * on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:01PM (#13440318)
    For this same reason I usually suggest to people that with very long term backups (assuming the backups actually survive) try to save your data in non propriatery forms. I am not trying to make a closed source vs open source argument, however if you want to save a large batch of word documents that you will not need to access in the near future try to convert them to plaintext where you can. Not fullproof, and not applicable for the majority of situations, but there are a few things that we can assume will not happen in the near future: 1) ascii will probably not die, so plaintext is often a good idea, 2) many of the more common image formats will probably be supported in one form or another (gif, jpg), you know stuff like that.
  • example (Score:3, Informative)

    by Hes Nikke ( 237581 ) <> on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:02PM (#13440330) Journal
    AppleWorks had no idea what to do with AppleWorks documents - assuming you can get a mac to read an Apple ][ floppy in the first place...

    For that matter, is there anything that can read VisiCalc files?

    Flame ON!
    • AppleWorks had no idea what to do with AppleWorks documents - assuming you can get a mac to read an Apple ][ floppy in the first place...

      Perhaps it wasn't carefully saved after all...

    • Re:example (Score:2, Informative)

      by brwski ( 622056 )
      Well, Apple ][ AppleWorks can, if I remember correctly --- and if you can get your hands on early versions of ClarisWorks, there is little problem importing Apple ][ AppleWorks files. Then there is the late, great word proc, AppleWriter. At least it used in-line codes to make things work. Made moving to LaTeX pretty easy.
    • VisiCalc uses text files -- the format is simple.

      Basically, just a list of commands and data. Read them in, and plant into another spreadsheet.

      The formulas will have to be converted, of course.

      But, the format itself is trivial.

    • > For that matter, is there anything that can read VisiCalc files?
      Try this [].
  • by i.r.id10t ( 595143 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:11PM (#13440404)
    Well, if it is an open format, nothing is stopping someone from writing something to read it and convert it to something "modern". If it is a closed format, and no longer in use, then the owner really should open it up. Would it be possible to setup an escrow of (closed) file formats - automatic open if the company goes defunct or individual dies.

    Also, if you know what the end result data is supposed to look like, would it be possible to start "decompiling" it? Works with binary executables (sometimes)...
  • Simple (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jZnat ( 793348 ) *
    Formats that are worth using for old (and sometimes new) documents:
    * RTF (quite universal)
    * PDF (somewhat universal, will always have the same formatting)
    * Plaintext (never becomes unreadable unless the file's character set ceases to exist somehow)
  • by markjugg ( 21992 ) * <{moc.tluasremmus} {ta} {kram}> on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:17PM (#13440452) Homepage
    I once worked on a research project for a newspaper to investigate voter fraud.

    To start, they used open records requests to get the details of people who recently voted, and details of those who recently died.

    The goal was to find people who continued to vote after they died, which may sound funny, but is still happening [].

    The data the government data gave us was on magnetic reels. The data on the reels was stored in a fixed-width EBCDIC format []. Talk about a dead format!

    It turned out the local college still had a working magnetic reel reader, and was able to help me get the data out of EBCDIC into ASCII, but the project was cancelled anyway.

    • The data on the reels was stored in a fixed-width EBCDIC format. Talk about a dead format!

      The physical media might be near death, but I work on modern C++ code that reads and writes fixed block EBCDIC files.

      • So, if you were to have old ASCII or EBCDIC 9-track tapes, where would one go to get them read? I have some dating to the late 80's I'd love to get the data off of. For amusement, mostly.
        • Do what the GP did: ask your local university. We still have a nine-track drive around, although it hasn't been fired up in a few years. Lots of data from the state government, ACT test reports, etc., came on 9-track tapes until just five or six years ago, so lots of universities still have them around.
    • Right. Did you ever get the impression the government agency might not have wanted you to complete the project?
  • Only kidding. I do have Wordstar 3.3 files made under CP/M that will still open though...
  • Smaller programs especially that we use in engineering become obsolete on a daily basis it seems. A lot of electrical/computer engineering programs especially for devices or programming these devices. Often these companies get bought out or lost forever. Then there's all the cad and simulation software. I can't even think of it all but i've come across a lot of essentially unusable stuff as a result.
  • Note... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Otter ( 3800 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:22PM (#13440494) Journal
    If true, this would lend a lot of force behind moving to products that have an open file format.

    Well, yes and no. Let's say Ami Pro file format were fully documented. (I have no idea whether it is or isn't.) At what point would it be worthwhile for your company to actually write a file converter? I can certainly imagine a situation where it might be a cost-effective thing to do, but it's not the kind of thing that anyplace I've ever worked does routinely.

    And from a retention point of view, I don't know if you _want_ whatever scumbag lawyer is subpoenaeing documents from you to be able to demand that you write him a converter. I'd rather be able to say "Here are our VisiCalc files. Enjoy!"

  • To read TI-99/4A written Display Variable 80 (aka DV80) files- in which all of my early experiments with machine language and my high school word processing papers are saved in. But- and this is a big but- I've got to find a 5.25", 360k drive to do it. So I've kept a few around- I doubt I could still find them new.

    Whenever possible, I convert those to plain text- and store them on CDs.
  • by dbrossard ( 911407 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:34PM (#13440589)
    A Boss I used to have that worked on many DARPA sponsored projects used to have to archive ALL data related to those projects. In order to this, not only did we have to archive the data itself, we had to archive a PC with all the pertinent software necessary to view/compile/manipulate that data including workstations, servers, you name it. Of course the government standard may be over kill for many companies.....
  • by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) * on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:40PM (#13440644) Homepage Journal
    The wierdest I had to decypher essentially comprised of a bunch of hierarchical blocks using headers that constituted a description word and some properties, enclosed in less than and greater than signs.

    It was, frankly, awful. Someone had clearly designed it as some kind of "One size fits all" type thing, except that as it was text based it didn't really work that well. Typically graphics, for example, had to be represented by a block that contained a filename: yep, graphics, sound, anything more complicated than a word or a number had to be put in a separate file. Neither my collegues nor I could understand why anyone would try to put so much effort into making it look hierarchical and extensible, and then not include support for data that isn't well represented as text. Hell, most of the files on our PCs can't easily be represented efficiently or usefully as text.

    It was also remarkably inefficient. To give you some idea, when we converted it into plain text files in a more efficient form, the files were typically 60-70% smaller. I've always found gzip a good indicator of the efficiency of a file format - usually, plain text compresses to about 30% of the original size. In this case, it was frequently 10%.

    Absolutely horrible format. I hope I never have to work with it again.

  • how about codecs? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by artifex2004 ( 766107 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:45PM (#13440680) Journal
    While the file format itself may be a standard wrapper, there's many codecs out there that are obsolete and that only ever had proprietary drivers written for early MS Windows versions, for example.
    • I was just thinking of that very thing, and was going to make a comment anyway.

      Consider the old Motion Pixels MovieCD codec. By today's standards the codec isn't much, and yes, if you happen to own any of the old MovieCDs you would be better served just buying the DVD of the movie.

      However, precisely because the MovieCD format was killed deader than hell by the DVD, Motion Pixels went out of business, and the codec source, if it even still exists, is probably in some bankruptcy liquidator's sock drawer - I d
  • by Alpha27 ( 211269 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:51PM (#13440722)
    It first depends on what you want to achieve with them, do you want them to be read only, or do you wish to edit them as well in the future? They may not be too much of an issue but something to think about.

    For images, I would look at the past to see what file formats were around before the internet was mainstream, circa 1995. I remember Paintbrush PCX as a file format, but haven't since a file in that format since then. TGAs and TIFFs were around and still are today, that might be one possibility. You also have SVG formats, and that being an XML file format, allows you to convert it to another format in the future.

    As for text documents, one definite possibility is XML. You can convert to many other formats from XML (HTML, PDF, RTF, etc.) Another possibility is RTF and plain text, though you might lose some of the more advance features. You might even have to extend the XML to deal with anything special in your files. Latex or Tex might be another solution since it's still around, though I have no experience with it, beyond being awware of them.

    I would also recommend keeping a copy of the original software you used at the time, in case you need to get access to the files with a program that actually created. This way, you still have some sort of access. If that means you need to keep a copy of the original O/S as well, so be it.
  • by gdav ( 2540 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:52PM (#13440735)
    But even so, the other day I got a shock, seeing how quickly the door closes.

    A professor at the university where I work turned up with his original doctoral thesis from 1989 on disk. 3" disk, to be exact - the format that famously lost out to the ubiquitous 3.5" disk. He had written it on the Amstrad PCW 8256, a weird British CP/M machine from the mid 80s. No matter, I have several of these rotting in my loft!

    But they don't boot. At this point you brace yourself for the long haul. The drive belts used to perish on those models, but look! There are loads of drive belts in the Maplin Electronics catalogue. You just need to order the right size.

    No problem! You carefully dismantle the drive and dig out the belt. You broke it? No problem! Just makes it easier to measure. You can only measure the circumference, whereas Maplin only quotes the diameter? No problem! You are about to use Pi for the first and last time in your entire life! Order one that's slightly too big, and one that's slightly too small, just to feel safe.

    When the belt arrives, you fit it. You carefully re-assemble the drive. You insert that CP/M boot disk that you carefully prepared in 1987, the one with the custom PROFILE.SUB that copies important utilities to RAMDISK. You power up and it boots! You feel young again.

    Now your try your Locoscript boot disk - remember, Locoscript did not run under CP/M - it was an entire little operating system unto itself. It works, and when you swap disks (f7) you can read the Prof's work! It's yesterday once more! Shoo-bee-doo-lang-lang!

    At this point I got lucky - I had the LOCOLINK package including the special Amstrad Bus PC parallel port link cable, so I was able to go Locosript PCW -> Locoscript PC -> Wordstar 3.3 -> Wordperfect 5.1 -> Winword. Those nice chaps at Ansible could have shortened that trip by a step or two.

    In the absence of the proprietary LOCOLINK cable I could also have gone Locoscript 1 PCW -> Locoscript 2 PCW -> ASCII on PCW -> ASCII on PC via Kermit -> Winword. But I'd have lost all his bolds and underlines.

    Now I got a fine bottle of Metaxa Greek Brandy out of this exchange, so I'm not exactly complaining. But I was shocked to realise that his files were younger than my eldest child, and she's got two years of school ahead of her.

    In the absence of any credible international initiative to create a reliable permanent archive format, I'd say print it to acid-free paper, multiple copies in separate places, and hope for the best, like Cassiodorus.
    • For text-based systems you can try and capture the printer output.

      Serial is simplest, you would need some trickery to capture the parallel port.

      Then some perl to decode the printer escape codes and re-apply formatting.

      OK, its not ideal, but it may have the most certain "finish time" of all the options, if you can do it with a serial port.

    • In the absence of any credible international initiative to create a reliable permanent archive format, I'd say print it to acid-free paper

      I still have source code (BASIC) I wrote in 1983 or so, along with old IBM Word Processor documents, etc.

      It's just not that hard to copy your old files to your new computer when you get one. I mean, CDs may go obsolete, but there will be an interim period when you have a CD-ROM drive and a new whizz-bang drive.

      Though it's been 12 years since I actually used removable med
    • When I did a masters' thesis and doctoral disssertation, I had to turn in two copies, one of which went off to University Microfilms in Ann Arbor, MI, for copying onto microfilm and storage wherever they keep it. Doesn't Britian (I'm guessing from his using an Amstrad that that's where he's from) have something similar?
    • In the absence of any credible international initiative to create a reliable permanent archive format, I'd say print it to acid-free paper, multiple copies in separate places, and hope for the best, like Cassiodorus.

      Actually, very important papers that is intended to last for a very long time are printed on specially made paper. An example of this a treaty between two states.

  • Well duh... (Score:3, Funny)

    by DJCater ( 877532 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @07:53PM (#13440752)
    XML! Open-source! Standards-compliant! Rag-doll physics! (Oh wait, wrong buzzword-bank...)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I keep double clicking on these ".mpg.avi.jpg.Donkey Bukkake Porn.wmv.exe" files and nothing happens!

    Maybe I should start using Windows?
  • Back in the day, mainstream software providers included "upward compatibility" in all new software releases. In other words, any data or files created by the software from PP1 release would be readable by whatever the current version happened to be, including any in between.

    Modern code developers seemingly have no concept of upward compatibility. More's the pity.
  • by FFFish ( 7567 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @08:08PM (#13440875) Homepage
    I contract out as a technical writer. For my primary client, I strongly encouraged and then delivered a plaintext solution that uses plaintext files stored repositoried in CVS, using the reStructured Text markup conventions processed through Docutils; and an XSL:FO template that is used by XEP to render the DocutilsXML to PDF. An autobuild system updates our documentation on a nightly basis.

    This system has worked superlatively. In addition to creating a documentation solution that will forevermore be accessible without special software, our authors can focus entirely on content without concern for layout and visual appearance, our customers get a reasonably open file format (PDF) that looks as good on-screen as it does in print. It's win-win all around, by my reckoning.

  • I used to work at a major corporation (you very likely own something made by them) who had a requirement to keep archives of their older engineering documents. The fire-safe was loaded with various tapes ranging back to many dozens of old open-reel tapes.

    Of course, they hadn't had the (monstrous) tape drives to actually read these tapes for many years. I have no idea what they thought they were keeping them for.
  • Before you can worry about reading individual files, you'll need to get them off the backup media.

    Assuming that you've got some hardware that can physically read whatever it is, what about the backup software?

    For example: [], complete with quote "this behavior is by design".

  • No, don't laugh.

    Realplayer 10 doesn't support Realplayer 2 "out of the box". It will happily connect to Real to download said codec if you want - although obviously this assumes that Real will always be with us.
  • by marat ( 180984 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @08:39PM (#13441123) Homepage
    Any MS Word ships with only one version of Equation Editor; it was 1.0 in Word 2, 2.0 in Word 6, and probably 3.0 or higher now. It means you cannot edit your old equations after switching to a newer version. Therefore most of those who tried to use Word for writing scientific papers left Word after version 6 came out, now only biologists and like still use it because they don't need no bloody math.
  • I wonder how many "mainstream" programs still read Amiga IFF files (for common types like Deluxe Paint/ILBM, WP files, etc) ... Sort of a more-efficient (binary) predecessor to XML; highly extensible with some basic functionalities you could extend (FORM, BODY, etc)

    I know Gimp supports it via a plugin. Here's a Newtek/Lightwave link: /LW80/8lwsdk/docs/filefmts/ilbm.html []
    • Tons. IFF files (or minor variants thereof) are the basis of the Mac's AIFF format, Windows WAVE format, and the DLS sample file format. And that's just the ones I've personally tried to parse...

      Graphic Converter on the Mac reads Amiga IFF graphics images of at least one flavor.
  • by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Tuesday August 30, 2005 @09:09PM (#13441450) Homepage Journal
    When people say "open format", they usually refer to documenting the details of the format. (Or, as with XML, using a format that's self-documenting.) Now, that does save a lot of work, but it doesn't address a much harder problem. Namely: OK, you've got the data, now how do you use it?

    Classic example: sharing MS Word files with other word processors. The problem isn't getting at the data in .DOC format (not an easy problem, but one that was solved years ago). The problem is rendering Word formatting using the conventions of other word processors. As anybody who's tried to import complex Word documents into Open Office will testify, that's a problem that's a long way from being solved -- if it ever is.

    I've been working on a project for an organization that has a bunch of certificates created in Adobe Illustrator 6. The files are saved in EPS format, which belongs to Adobe, but is very well documented. So accessing the files should be a snap, right? Wrong. I have Adobe Illustrator 11 (better known as Illustrator CS), which uses completely different conventions for creating an EPS file. It can read the old files OK -- but it horribly mungs the formatting. Somebody's going to have to sit down and undo all that munging, which will be a day or two of work. Then we can make the simple change (inserting a new signature), that's the only change we want to make!

    So true openness has more to it than knowing what all the bits and bytes do. It's making sure that all the different design teams for different products that use the format (or the same product at different times!) are on the same page when it comes to the fine details.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    1)Two copies of archival quality hardcopy stored off site printed using an OCR font.
    2)Two copies of archival quality media stored off site saved as RTF as well as the working format.
    3) Regular on site archives.
    4) Regular on site backups.

    At least one off site facility should be a secure storage facility. The other should be accessible 24/7/365, therefore it should be on company property. Each site has paper and media. Archive quarterly.

    However, mostly it sounds like you need to hire a real Technical Writer a
  • I would guess that most of the retention laws only require that you retain the files, not that you be able to load them into any particular program to make the files useful. So by just retaining the files, you're most likely already complying with the letter of the law.

    If someone asks for access to those files, it's their problem/responsibility to make use of them. Of course, if it's something that someone within your company needs, then it would be nice of you to help them access the files in a useful mann
  • QPW (Score:3, Informative)

    by dtfinch ( 661405 ) * on Wednesday August 31, 2005 @12:43AM (#13442963) Journal
    Some might argue that Quattro Pro is still alive (they're still releasing new versions), but its default spreadsheet format is entirely unsupported by the rest of the world. Every time someone cracks their file format, they make a new one. WB1, WB2, WB3, and now QPW. QPW is already 8 years old and still few have figured it out well enough to even extract data from it. If Corel Office dies, many old spreadsheets will slip into oblivion unless converted manually (open, save as, close, and repeat for each of your 500+ spreadsheets).
    • Re:QPW is not closed (Score:2, Informative)

      by TeXMaster ( 593524 )
      Corel is not really in the "don't have a look at our file format" field, at all.

      With the SDK, which you can download for free, you get full reference of the file formats of WP, Presentation and QuattroPro.

      The problem is rather that nobody is interested in creating the conversion filters. For WordPerfect, there is now libwpd, which was built with the aforementioned reference. For QuattroPro, there isn't enough interest.

      A secondary problem is that Corel Office programs have, for most of their programs,

  • Well, retention periods aren't a major headache. Just produce given file on request and opening it should be a worry of whoever ordered it. Not changing the file format guarantees no original information is lost along the way.
    But if you -need- these files internally, just keep one-two boxen with all the legacy software you'd ever need.
  • Vivo video files. (Score:2, Informative)

    by Chonine ( 840828 )
    Back in ~97 a freind and I compressed all of our stupid home movies from web cams into vivo format. It was designed for streaming, but made very small files that we would xfer over modem to eachother.

    Now, playing viv files on windows is a pain, you have to install the archaic vivo player, which was designed for windows 95 or so. Also after years of searching, noone makes an app to convert them to mpg, sans some commercial screen capturing programs that I wouldn't touch. MPlayer plays the files, and Im

  • "Hey boss, here is the new version"

    "Hang on, didn't I tell you to remove that 4kb file reader for the last-last version?"

    "Why boss? I mean then people using the old version will suddenly find it has become obsole...t...e...aaaaaaaah I see!!!"

    "Good boy! Welcome to Microsoft"

    Use open office, for some reason that don't care if you open old office formats, maybe because they are not trying to ass rape you.
  • For long-term storage, I'd advocate rich text format, or straight-up text, maybe even HTML. Text is openable by anything, and hasn't changed since it was designed.
  • ...with embedded images and such that were created by Geoworks Ensemble back in the early 1990's, and converting them to another format has proven to be a bit of a pain due to the lack of good export filters in GeoWrite or its successors, and also due to the fact that nobody else seems to be able to read GeoWrite files.

    Thankfully, I can still get the PC/GEOS environment to work on various PCs at home, but at some point that won't be an option.
  • by sysadmn ( 29788 ) <.sysadmn. .at.> on Wednesday August 31, 2005 @11:15AM (#13445851) Homepage
    I work in an aerospace division of a very large corporation. I was talking to a design engineer about the FAA's data retention requirements - he said in most cases, it's the life of the product, plus a little cushion. For us, that's about 40 years. In addition to preserving data, you have to be able to recreate the analysis - so if you used a visicalc spreadsheet to perform an analysis, you have be able to do it again. (I think this is more an "in case we get sued" requirement than an FAA one). I was joking about 40 years being a long time when the coworker said, "Just be glad you don't work for the medical division. They have to keep their design data for the lifespan of the patient. For a neonatal ultrasound product, that's effectively one hundred years!"
  • ... but I have a copy of my Masters' Thesis on a nine-track 1600 bpi mag tape, in a CDC 6/12 character set.
  • Here in New Zealand we are required by Inland Revenue to keep financial records for 7 years.

    I have a few 6~7 year old .wks spreadsheets created by MS-Works for DOS for a small business run by my father.
    During the 1990s we moved from MSDos to OS/2 to Linux, and all the while we kept using MS-Works for DOS (dosemu on linux).
    We also have some 4~6 year old Star Office files (.sdc format) and most recently we are using OpenOffice (.sxc format).
    I suppose I could still install dosemu and MS-Works (I have the origi

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