Archive: Computer Collector Newsletter / Technology Rewind, Jan. 2004 - March 2006

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The end of software

by Sellam Ismail

It's the year 2020. Computers hardly resemble what we are currently familiar with, archaic input devices like the keyboard and the dreadful mouse are odd curios in computer museums. All that speculation (and that's all it is) aside, the real concern is all those old floppy disks, magnetic tapes, and CD-ROMs on which you have stored all your programs and data. Magnetic floppy disk media is now 50 years old, a full 20 years after even the most optimistic estimates of floppy disk longevity. Your bits are gone. Same with the magnetic tape, where the oxide recording layer is flaking off the substrate and sticking to the head of your creaky tape drive. Not even your punched cards or paper tape have been spared. Sure, the pulp-based medium has predictably outlasted any plastic-based recording media, but the machines used to read them are useless hulks of metal and failing electronics, their rubber belts and hoses having disintegrated long ago leaving a pile of droppings on the bottom of the enclosure.

This prediction was crafted more by a desire to have a dramatic opening paragraph than on any in depth analysis, but the scenario is not very far-fetched. Today in 2006, magnetic media such as reel-to-reel tape is already a full 50 years old. Rigid disk technology is only slightly younger. The earliest floppy disks, the technology having been invented in the early 1970s, are now a full 15 years past their theoretical lifespan. This stuff was supposed to die a long time ago, but miraculously people are still often able to read this media without too much trouble. Disks that I created in the 1980s still read and write as if I was still a geeky high school dweeb. I'm still able to read magnetic tapes from the 1970s that my clients send me without much fuss. And my punched card and paper tape readers still chug along just fine for the most part. But this is now. We don't really know what's really going to happen in 2020 and beyond. We may well be at the final cusp of the "bathtub curve" when everything begins to just fail. In fact, for the sake of our software legacy, we must assume this. The time for a solution is yesterday.

So what is the solution? Browse over to to read Sellam's white paper and to learn how you can help.