Using ‘computers’ these days (here in the ‘future’ of 2015 – the future if you were living in Back To The Future) is so commonplace that we no longer even call them computers. We call them ‘devices’. We have them in our pockets and we use them without thinking or realising they are in fact quite advanced, powerful and highly functional computers.

What was ‘computing’ like in the olden-days? Back in 1985 when Back To The Future was released? To use a computer back then really required you to be an innovator / early adopter because the devices were quite difficult to use, quite limited in what they could do, and quite expensive.

No mouse. No GUI.

What data were people producing / creating? What formats was it in and can we read that data today?

5.25" Floppy Disk

5.25″ Floppy Disk

The answers to these questions as they relate to life in 1985 are quite a bit simpler than if we were asking the questions today where we use a massive range of devices to do an incredible number of weird, wonderful (and mundane) things. In 1985 though, the range of machines was tiny as was the number of applications / apps (they were actually called programs back then) was also very very limited. And there was very little choice – not many machines and not many programs. The ability to share files (there were no digital photographs of course) was still in the future as networks (think ‘LAN’ didn’t really exist and the ‘internet’ was still in it’s infancy in that there were no standards that had been adopted yet, and the use of what did exist was for military, government and academic etc use. Nothing corporate or commercial (they didn’t have networks remember). The internet back then was all about connecting large computers (supercomputers). Home users made use of bulletin boards (BBSs) that were dialled into using modems connected to phone lines. Slow, quite crude, but very versatile.

So, what computers were widely available, what did they look like, and what could they do? This sort of morphs into what operating systems were available and how widespread were they because you needed to choose a computer based on what you were planning to do with it – not all computers could do ‘everything’.

Home computers were quite widespread (like the Commodore 128 (C-128) that was launched in 1985) and these were mainly used for games and music simply because there were few word processing (as it was called then), spreadsheet, database etc programs available. And people at home wanted to play games and make music! In fact the Commodore 64 that was the forerunner to the C-128, sold 27 million units (the biggest selling computer of all time)! Programs were either typed in from listings in magazines or purchased on cartridges / cassettes / floppy disks (floppy disks really were floppy back in 1985).

On the C-128, the ‘UI’, if you could call it that, was just text. No mouse. No ‘GUI’. A typical screen looked like this (from the C-128):

Commodore 128 Screen

Commodore 128 Screen

Too complicated for grocery lists

Does any data from a C-128 survive? The C-128 could only store data on fragile 5.25” floppy discs that had a capacity of 340 KB (that’s 0.3 MB). And while the C-128 cost $300, a word processor for it (like Perfect Writer) was $389 (a magazine ad for it is here). If you wanted the word processor to have a spell-checker, that was another $150. As was typical, Perfect Writer used a proprietary file format that no other programs could read. One contemporary reviewer  said “It is a little too complicated for writing grocery lists.” It would therefore have been quite a specialist tool and as it needed a large manual, it was hard to use.

Business users and business software

Only people in businesses were using anything more sophisticated that the $300 C-128. Business users had Macs and IBM-compatible PCs around this time but they were amazingly expensive. A Mac was ~$3,000-4,000 while an IBM-campatible PC was ~$2,000. If you wanted an internal hard drive in your IBM-compat PC, you’d be looking at up to $6k.

Microsoft introduced Excel (Mac only) in 1985 though Lotus 1-2-3 was the most popular spreadsheet application at the time (it was soon overtaken by Excel though). Both of these applications are still around today but their internal file formats are quite different now to how they were 30 years ago.

Excel 1.0 on a Mac

Excel 1.0 on a Mac

Microsoft claims that todays’ version of Excel can still open the proprietary, binary format used by Excel all the way from 1.0 until it was replaced with an XML-based format in 2007. Anyone have any files to try this theory out?

Windows 1.0 was also released in 1985:

Windows 1.0 in 1985

Windows 1.0 in 1985

As you can see in the image, Notepad was right there in v1.0 helping people create ASCII files that, by their very nature and accessibility (and purpose), can still be read today by virtually any machine on the planet!

Not many about anymore

Aldus Pagemaker was first introduced for the Mac (Macs were quite mature by 1985 while Windows was only just at v1.0). Pagemaker was desktop publishing (DTP) software that allowed for the mixing of text and images on the same page – revolutionary for computers in 1985.

Aldus Pagemaker 1.0

Aldus Pagemaker 1.0

All the way up to v6.5 released in 1996, Pagemaker used a proprietary data format that was in-part designed to stop users from migrating to competitor software. It is apparently possible to install these old apps on old computers and open the old data files. Windows users will be in better shape than Mac users – Windows XP will suffice, whereas to run Pagemaker on a Mac, you’ll need a PowerPC-based machine capable of booting to Mac OS 9. Such a machine is the PowerPC-based Performa 5200.

Macintosh Performa 5200

Macintosh Performa 5200

Being able to fire up a machine like this now is getting harder and harder – there are not many about and the ones that are, are wearing out.

Hardware, hardware and hardware

So, accessing (never mind preserving) data from 1985’s computers – It’s a mixed bag.

If you were an early adopter computer pioneer in 1985 you would probably have a C-128 and a Mac (you probably didn’t have an IBM-compat PC). You would have been well-off though. While the C-128 was only $300, the Mac available at the time was a whopping $3,000-4,000.

IBM PC Ad

IBM PC Ad

You will have been using something like Perfect Writer on the C-128 and to read that data now, you’re probably going to need all of the hardware (the C-128, the 5.25” floppy drive and the data floppy) to access your data. You won’t be able to export the data to a different format and none of today’s apps will be able to read the files for you to get the data into a modern, usable storage medium (like a USB stick). So, if you can get all of the technology from 1985 going, you’re only going to be able to read the words on the screen. Print it? Maybe.

Ad for Perfect Writer

Ad for Perfect Writer

Old Excel or 1-2-3 spreadsheets; old Pagemaker files? Similar issues – you’ll need the hardware / programs / floppy drives to actually read the data. With the spreadsheets, you should be OK reading them into today’s apps. But you will need specialist hardware to get the files form the old computer to a modern one.

Using Notepad? Well, you’re probably in luck! Unless they are stored on old floppy disks… in which case you’re going to  need that hardware again…

Windows Notepad v1.01

Windows Notepad v1.01

Archive preservation

We’re generally in better shape these days as many file formats are (while proprietary), XML-based (Microsoft Office for example) and the companies devising them are more open to documenting them. And we’re a bit more aware of the issues around file conversion and longevity. But hardware is still going to be a big issue. Not necessarily in being able to connect USB (or whatever) devices, by plugging them into our modern devices, but more around the fact that they have such short lives. USB stick? Give it three years tops. Have it dangling on your key-ring or backpack? Give it 6-12m. Old CD-R? Might be dead already. DVD? Might have a few years left. Omega 100 MB ZIP drive? Hmmm.

Omega 100 MB ZIP Drive

Omega 100 MB ZIP Drive

It’s an issue that we need to keep talking about – which we are of course. I think that file-format preservation is an issue that is being addressed (think Archivematica for example) and we’re doing our best (but not enough) to avoid hardware issue – by using cloud and managed service providers to store our data for us. Better still of course is dedicated archive storage of digitally-preserved data (think MoMA).

Some advice?

  1. Store your data in a lot of different locations (different devices, storage media, and storage services)
  2. Make sure at least two of these are in the cloud (Dropbox for example)
  3. Don’t rely on fragile, local hardware (like that 4TB USB drive on your desk – one jolt, one spilt coffee – and it’s all gone)
  4. If you can, avoid obscure and proprietary fire formats (popular software is more likely to be updated and more likely to enable you to save in ‘open’ formats)
  5. Store data if you can in ‘open’ formats like DNG (digital negative)
  6. Don’t forget your data: revisit it periodically to check it’s still there and readable. Consider migrating it to newer formats (time-consuming I know)

Here’s a little test: Go to your oldest storage device (might be your oldest computer  / laptop; might be an old external drive; might be an old CD-R; might be an old floppy in a drawer somewhere; might even be a USB stick). Plug it in, hook it up and open the oldest file on it. Did that work? Great! If not, what are you going to do, if anything, about it?

So, as we celebrate BTTF15 day, have a think about your data and where it’ll be in 30 years time (on 21st October 2045).