Aging File Formats


An interesting article on the BBC today about digitial preservation. The issue is a well-known one, that file formats go out of date very quickly. They have a chap from Microsoft showing that you using a virtual machine you can still open word 3.0 documents; this seems to miss the point, to my mind. Great, so I can still read it, with my eyes, by looking at it. But can I compute over it? If we are to take this approach, then it might make more sense to just print out over thing that we want to store and save the paper.

I think that it’s good that we are moving toward open documentation standards. Microsoft’s standardisation of their file formats is welcome, if belated. However, it has to be acknowledged that a large, 6000 page specification is going to be a problem in the future. It’s notable, that I have 15 year old latex documents on my machine and on the whole they still just work; when they do not, almost all of the knowledge in them is easily recoverable with a text editor. As far as I can see, the only way that you can guarentee that a file format will be usable into the future is to make it as simple as possible.

Originally published on my old blog site.