Preventing the New Dark Ages: Start Here
Incidentally, that previous blog entry reminds me: people regularly ask me, "well, why don't you use (Windows | Microsoft Office | [insert program here)? Everybody else does, and it would make your life so much easier." Or they ask me "why bother using Linux? It's so much easier to use Windows." And so on.
Well. Why do I swim against the tide?
A good starting place is to read this Guardian opinion piece by the chief executive of the British Library. She starts off: "Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft. I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It's tragic." And then she goes on, just barely scraping the surface of a dismal phenomenon that I've been aware of since the late 1980s — purely by accident.
My history with computers starts thus: in 1981, I acquired a Sinclair ZX81. And I played with it for a bit, before deciding it sucked. (I sold it and used the proceeds to buy a programmable scientific calculator, which I still own.) It wasn't until 1985 that I saw a computer that did what I wanted and that I could actually afford to buy (on a student's shoestring): the Amstrad PCW 8256. I loved my PCW, and lavished on it a memory upgrade, and a second 3" floppy disk drive (not 3.5"; the PCW ran on a unique flavour of media that nobody else used), and then — quite radical in those days — a hard disk that cost me two weeks' wages on my first post-graduation job. Then in 1987 I got a much better job, bought myself an IBM PC clone, and...
But enough about the hardware history. The software history is quite different.
The Amstrad PCW came with a word processor called LocoScript. LocoScript got me through my final year at university and, coincidentally, was what I wrote my first professionally published short stories on. But it was very limited — if your files went over about 40Kb in size it slowed right down, and there was no word count facility. I realized early on that I wanted something better, intelliSpell 1.0 Serial Key keygen and I bought a copy of Protext (before LocoScript 2 came out, which fixed most of my complaints). As I was also teaching myself a bit about programming (and from 1987 doing a night school course in computer science) I stopped using LocoScript, and simply started new work in Protext.
When I switched to an IBM PC clone (an Amstrad PC 1512) it had 5.25" floppy disks, rather than the eccentric 3" disks used by the PCW. And the PCW had no serial port (the serial port accessory cost all of £66, a fair bit of money in 1987). So I copied my writings onto a couple of 3" floppes and sent them off to a bureau who, for a small fee, returned them to me — along with a brace of 5.25" floppies. Then I started hunting for a WP for the PC.
Being halfway to broke at the time (I'd just bought my first flat, and interest rates went up roughly 4% over the next year, doubling my repayments) I poked around various shareware libraries first. Along the way, I settled on PC WRITE 2.4 for a while, and wrote a novel on it. (Various ideas, reworked in other forms, ultimately ended up in "The Atrocity Archive" many years later). I was reading magazine reviews, and had a fair idea of what bugged me about existing word processors; so when Borland Sprint came out, I coughed up the relevant amount of money and bought a copy of that, which served me well for roughly five years, by which time Windows 3.0 was sitting on my 386, and I'd acquired a student copy of Word 2.0 for Windows while at University.
... Are you noticing a pattern yet?
In the space of six years, I went through five word processing packages. Being naive at the time I didn't export my files into ASCII when I moved from CP/M and LocoScript to MS-DOS. I learned better, and when I switched from Sprint to Word I halfway ASCII-fied those files; they're a bit weird, but if I really wanted to I could get into them with Perl and mangle them into something editable. Along the way, I lost the 3" floppies from the PCW. Then I had a hard disk die on me — in those days, the MTBF of hard drives was around 10,000 hours — and it took the only copy of most of the early work with it.
Score to 1993: two years' work is 90% lost. And a subsequent five years' work is accessible, kinda-sorta, if I want to strip out all the formatting codes and revert to raw ASCII.
In 1992 I got a Mac (a Macintosh LC, with all of 4Mb of RAM and a 40Mb hard disk). I was also working in a UNIX shop, where text processing was an important part of my job and SGML was the coming thing. And I began to notice something...
Every time Microsoft bought out a new release of Word, they introduced a new file format. The new version of Word could read documents created by about the last three versions, plus RTF. If you were in business and needed to exchange electronic documents with business partners, you had to upgrade in lockstep so that you could read the files they sent you. This was used quite coldly as a marketing tool, to compel the herd to buy new copies of a word processor — which, by then, was a mature technology. The upgrade cycle was about 18 months to two years long, and I suspect it had more to do with accounting and depreciation rules (so that a corporate customer for MS Word licenses would only have one generation of the software depreciating on the books at a time) than with development time. The upshot was that, unless you took precautions, your documents would become inaccessible due to designed-in obsolescence within about 4-6 years.
I am not in a business with a 4-6 year document retention cycle. I am in a business where I hope that what I wrote ten years ago will still be accessible a century hence. Microsoft's policy was deliberately destroying my life's work.
Of course, Microsoft was not (then) in the business of selling software designed to meet the requirements of novelists; it's in the business of making money by selling software to offices where the average document has a life of a couple of months to a couple of years, and where paper files are routinely destroyed after 5-10 years to save archival storage space. And realistically, how do you go about selling a mature product (word processors) into a market like that? Well, a simple solution is to get the users to give you their data — and then charge them rent for accessing it. Microsoft charged rent in the form of payments for regular rolling upgrades. Now they're pinning their hopes on Cloud Computing, where all your data will be stored in a nebulous cloud somewhere on the internet — sort of like Google Docs and Sheets with a Microsoft tax on top (Google monetize it by advertising, of course).
It's not just word processing. I briefly looked at Microsoft Outlook as an email client, once. It turns out that Outlook stores email in a proprietary data format that only Outlook can easily read. Needless to say, I wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole. Ever since I first got email in 1989, my acid test for an email system is "can I get at the content from outside?" To put this in perspective: last month I rediscovered a DC 6150 tape cartridge containing a backup of emails I'd sent and received in the period 1991-95. I'd thought it lost forever, and indeed, I had no way of reading it. But thanks to a friend of mine who did, we were able to retreive the contents — mailboxes stored in MMDF and Mbox formats (MMDF is similar but not compatible). Both are still in use, and still readable, to this day, using open source clients — or even a text editor (they're simply long text files with individual email messages separated by a header). The tape had been written using tar, a UNIX archiving tool that's been around since the late 1970s.
I can't really blame the big corporations for wanting to seize all our data and charge us for access (either a monthly fee, or by forcing us to pay attention to adverts); corporations behave the way they do for structural reasons. (It's like the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog.) But I don't need to cooperate with them.
As a matter of personal policy, for those activities that involve creating data, I aim to use only software that is (a) cross-platform, (b) uses open or well-published file formats, and (c) ideally is free software.
This is in some ways a handicap; Thunderbird (my mail client of choice) and OpenOffice aren't as colourful and feature-rich as, say, Apple's Mail.app or Microsoft's latest Word. However...
Firstly, they run on Macs, Linux systems, Windows PCs, and even on some other minority platforms. This protects my data from being held to ransom by an operating system vendor.
Secondly, they use open file formats. Thunderbird stores mailboxes internally in mbox format, with a secondary file to provide metadata. (This means I can claw back my email if I ever decide to abandon the platform.) OpenOffice uses OASIS, an ISO standard for word processing files (XML, style sheet, and other sub-files stored within a zip archive, if you need to go digging inside one). I can rip my raw and bleeding text right out of an OASIS file using command line tools if I need to. (Or simply tell OpenOffice to export it into RTF.)
Thirdly, they're both open source projects and thus the developers have no incentive to lock me in so that they can charge me rent. I don't mind paying for software; where an essential piece of free software has a tipjar on the developer's website, I will on occasion use it. And I'm writing this screed on a Mac, running OS/X; itself a proprietary platform. But the software I use for my work is open — because these projects are technology driven rather than marketing driven, so they've got no motivation to lock me in and no reason to force me onto a compulsory (and expensive) upgrade treadmill.
I'll make exceptions to this personal policy if no tool exists for the job that meets my criteria — but given a choice between a second-rate tool that doesn't try to steal my data and blackmail me into paying rent and a first-rate tool that locks me in, I'll take the honest one every time. And I'll make a big exception to it for activities that don't involve acts of creation on my part. I see no reason not to use proprietary games consoles, or ebook readers that display files in a non-extractable format (as opposed to DRM, which is just plain evil all of the time). But if I created a work I damn well own it, and I'll go back to using a manual typewriter if necessary, rather than let a large corporation pry it from my possession and charge me rent for access to it.
Posted by Charlie Stross on January 25, 2009 11:45 AM | Permalink