“Open PodBay.doors, Hal.”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t find an application to do that.”

For several years I used a Macintosh page layout application called “Ready, Set, Go!” to make songbooks for filk music conventions. Somewhere along the way I upgraded my system and discovered that RSG would no longer run. All the files I’d edited with it were so much digital junk.

This is a user’s nightmare: A change in the computer or operating system makes an application obsolete, and there’s no way to recover the files that you made with it. The best way to avoid this situation is prevention. If you care about the long-term usability of your files, either avoid creating them in an obscure proprietary format or regularly back them up to a more robust format. The tests are whether there’s more than one application (preferably several) that can deal with the format, and whether the format specification is publicly available and standardized. This is often put as “proprietary” vs. “open,” but that can be misleading; some open formats are proprietary in the sense that a particular business owns them, but open in that the specifications are published and anyone is free to implement them. (An example of this is the TIFF image format, which is specified by an Adobe document but widely implemented.) On the flip side, “open” formats may not be as open as they seem if they allow for vendor-specific data which can be critical in practice to proper rendering. (An example of this is Microsoft Office Open XML.)

If your application creates files in an obscure proprietary format, be sure to export them to a more portable format, and make sure they’re all exported when you’re about to do a system upgrade. If it doesn’t have any export capability, look for add-ons that might allow it. If there aren’t any, you might seriously consider changing to a different application before your potential losses get too big. Sometimes, though, the big-name applications cause just as much trouble. If you have files created by an old version of an application, the current release may not be able to open them.

Outputting files as PDF (except for audio and video, of course) can provide a useful safety net. Converting them back to an editable form may be difficult, but at least you have the content in a usable form. For maximum safety, specify PDF/A when you do this.

But what if you’re already stuck in a blind alley? You upgraded your computer and now you can’t open files that you desperately need. The first thing to try is right-clicking on the file icon to see if it offers any applications that can open a file. If the first one you try doesn’t work or does a poor job, try any others. If you manage to open the file that way, be sure to save it in a more current format while you can.

If that doesn’t work, there can be other solutions, generally requiring effort or money. You can get a computer with an older version of the operating system and install your old application there, if you can still find the installation disk. The fact that you probably don’t need the latest hardware to do this may make this a relatively cheap, though still effort-intensive, approach.

You can pay an expert to convert your files for you. Consulting outfits such as Geek Squad offer such services. I make no recommendations here; if you go this route, you need to look for someone who’s reputable and has a record of results, and even then you may have a situation too obscure for them to handle. It’s doubtless easier if you want to recover files that just went obsolete on your computer than if you ask someone to get back files you haven’t been able to read for five years.

Sometimes partial recovery is possible. On several occasions, I’ve salvaged old word processing files by opening them in a text editor and fishing the readable text out of the markup. If the formatting isn’t critical, this can be very effective. This isn’t likely to work with image or sound files, though.

Here I should put in a special warning about Mac OS X Lion. It no longer supports Rosetta, the compatibility software that allows applications written for the older Power PC processor, to run on Intel machines. This means that any old Power PC applications you might have will just stop working if you install Lion. The simplest solution for now is not to use Lion; as far as I’m concerned, it offers no advantages and makes several things worse. But eventually you’ll want to get software that won’t run on anything older, so this just postpones the issue for a year or two. That year or two can give you enough time to make sure you aren’t going to lose anything when you yield to the inevitable.

Suggestions: Before upgrading your operating system or an important application, think about what files might be at risk. If in doubt, export or convert them to a safer format. If you have files that were created by an old version, update them to the current version. Prevention is much easier than curing.

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