Monday, March 5, 2007

The Ephemeral Nature of Computers

My wife and I are talking about getting some landscaping done.  One of the interesting options we have is to get a computerized sprinkler system.  The system connects to your PC and uses the web to determine the weather.  It can use this information to make intelligent choices.  For instance, if rain is coming, it won't bother to water.  This sounds really cool until you stop to think about it.  How long do we expect the sprinkler system to last?  10 years?  20 years?  What is the chance that computers will be around in 20 years that can still run this irrigation system?  Even if we preserve one, what is the chance that whatever web service is behind it will still exist and will still have the same interface?  Zero?

One problem computers face is that they accelerate the pace of change.  Sometimes this can be very good.  It is the secret to much of the large increase in productivity this country has experienced.  However, because things change so quickly, nothing stays around very long.  Within the lifetime of everyone reading this, there will likely be several major computing platforms.  So far, we are not very good at preserving the old ones.  Try finding a machine to read a 5 1/4" floppy disk.

This, by the way, is the main reason I won't buy DRM'd music.  When formats change, I can always re-rip my CDs.  What if Apple stumbles and the iPod becomes uncool?  What will I be allowed to do with my FairPlay-encrypted music files?  I can't transcode them because they are encrypted.  I still have the CD's I bought 15 years ago in High School.  They still work.  Does anyone think that the iPod will still be using the same music format in 15 years?  If you think it will, just go talk to anyone who bought music from MSN music.

Will the web change this?  Will it preserve things better or worse?  My vote is for worse.  Take for example our digital photos.  When I have 3 gigs of pictures on my hard drive I have some hope of preserving them.  Let's say that .jpg dies out and some new format comes to dominate.  I can always run a conversion program to keep my pictures around.  Now assume that all of the photos are on Flickr instead of my hard drive.  How do I preserve them?  Sure, Flickr could just convert them for me but what if Yahoo goes out of business?  What if they just decide that they are not making money on the free storage of photographs model?  Then I have to find a way to download them all, convert them, then upload them to another site.  It can be done, but it's more custom work than just getting a photo converter program to run locally.  When we put our data into someone else's hands we lessen our ability to manipulate it which lessens our ability to preserve it.

Consider gaming.  I can still find ways to play games written 25 years ago for the Commodore 64.  What's the chance anyone will be able to experience World of Warcraft in the year 2030?


  1. This can also be an argument against *any* software with DRM - such as the activation required by XP & Vista. What happens if Microsoft goes bust (dot't laugh - before it happened who would have thought this could happen to Enron, or anyone of numerous other large corporations that have failed in the past)?
    The only sensible option is to use software that comes with the source code, and the right to run it without asking for permission from someone else.

  2. if ms goes down the tank linux will be even more useless then it is now, you see its ms that drive's the linut's to get better!  Its a symbiotic relationship, who benefits the most is up to you to decide!

  3. Echoing Julian a bit, this is my primary argument against software (particularly games) which require remote unlocking to function.
    Examine Steam.  You can have the physical media, but if Valve's severs aren't around to decrypt those files for you, your game is locked.  When Valve dies (and they will, of course), you've just lost your ability to play Halflife 2.

  4. Good points all.  Julian is right in many ways.  It wouldn't even take Microsoft going bankrupt but just moving away from Windows that would make it impossible to use the older operating systesm.  Colin makes a great point about Steam.  I'm a little less worried about an OS than about media or a game though.  There's enough momentum built up around Windows that it will be possible to run into the foreseeable future.  There is enough value there that someone will make it possible somehow.  There's less value in an individual game or movie though and the likelihood that someone will go through the effort of making it possible to use is much less.  That's not to say I don't see the danger in tying things to activation.  It bodes ill for the long-term future.  It's not just the activation either.  Think of all the product updates you get via the web now.  Should those servers go away, there's no way to have a complete product any more.

  5. From a economical point of view, there's an amount customers are willing to pay for the ephemeral which is less than the amount customers are willing to pay for the permanent.
    Correspondingly, there's an amount that businesses are willing to accept for the permanent that is more than the amount they're willing to accept for the ephemeral.
    If these amounts cross, the ephemeral transaction is beneficial for both sides, and is rational, despite the innate drawbacks of ephemeralness.

  6. The updates problem is actually one I've encountered more than once.  My solution is that I save a small archive (5 gigs or so) of every patch I've downloaded for software I still have--again, particularly for games, which fall out of support blindingly fast.  Even games with auto-updaters tend to download patches in such a way that you can scrounge around on your hard drive and grab a copy.
    There also exist online repositories of old software updates, specifically for this reason, though that's less reliable to depend on.

  7. In an article I had read in IEEE Spectrum a few years back, the author was discussing a method of preserving digital data for generations to come, basically a digital archive of the human knowledge. Of course the biggest problem that came up was the format standards and how to maintain backward compatibility in centuries. They also make no assumptions on anything surviving in terms of computer languages, compilers and so on of the stored information (be it documents or programs). They admit that the problem is hard and in some cases too hard. It seems that the solution is to rely on an agreed upon set of open standards. The project discussed is D-Space which I take it intends to tackle and solve this problem.
    Article in IEEE Spectrum:
    D-Space Project: