Lessons in obsolescence

Digital data is convenient, flexible — and can age surprisingly badly. Without the long view, it'll have a short life

Twenty-five years ago, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was launched. This tiny slab of overheated plastic helped kick-start a generation of IT experts — and sold in the millions. Yet when Amstrad took over the product just four years later, their engineers were stumped: the source for the Spectrum's system software came on 8-inch floppy disks, copied from the ancient VAX minicomputer that had for many years been the main development host at Sinclair.

More than 20 years later, the situation has improved. Although it is impossible now to reconstruct the original device, the Spectrum lives on in emulation, with new developments and a healthy — for certain meanings of that word — community enjoying full access to the entire legacy of one of computing's more enjoyable phenomena.

There are plenty of lessons here for the enterprise. As the British Library and others have noted, digital documents of all kinds are surprisingly vulnerable to obsolescence. Even those designed for compatibility with a wide variety of systems are useless if none of those systems survive. And no system survives for that long these days.

It's a matter of probabilities. Adopt an open standard, and you increase the chances of long-term readability. Use a common platform — ideally, one where the same software can run on multiple types of hardware — and your chances go up again. Find a way of emulating the old system on the new, and you've got yet another lease of life. Check that you can still read important documents on a regular basis, and you'll catch problems before they become calamities. And be prepared to go through the whole thing again if you buy or merge with another company, and look down the barrel of a forced change of IT systems in the name of efficiency.

But it's worth it. Novell will back that up: in the interminable court case against SCO, it has just pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the shape of a 10-year-old document that directly contradicts the undocumented claims of its opponent.

Data integrity over time can, if you wish, be seen as just another task for the overworked IT manager to worry about. Or you can download a ZX Spectrum emulator, fire up Manic Miner, and remind yourself that while nobody can predict the future, it's still possible to give it a fighting chance.