net.wars: Computerdate 2006; computer data 404

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 December 2005

'Tis the season to be predictive or retrospective. Maybe both. The Christmas tree is counting down the last hours to January 1, and the pundits are after us with what happened in 2005 and what?s going to happen in 2006. They may be a little bit more right than the average psychic, but it's more fun if they're not.

Wendy M Grossman

It might, instead, be more instructive to think about what hasn't happened in 2005 and isn't going to happen in 2006. This train of thought was touched off by a phone call from a friend who was getting an upsetting error message whenever she tried to boot up her (Windows) computer (like there's a boot-up error message that isn't upsetting). A little research suggested the problem was a corrupt registry.

'What does that do?' she said, given that tentative diagnosis. Oy.

Naturally, she didn't have backups of the registry, up-to-date data backups, up-to-date recovery disks, or any of those other things you wish for in such a crisis.

Of all the failures in the industry the one I most wish they'd fix is backups. They keep building more and more into Windows - media players, browsers, even better security - and yet backups are still a mess. And getting worse. Five years ago, average computer users had hundreds of megabytes of program software on their hard drives and ones, at most tens, of megabytes of data they'd generated in the form of email, word-processed documents, and some personal finance data.

Today, the entire situation has been reversed. We have a couple of gigabytes of programs and tens or hundreds of gigabytes of data: photographs, music, video. And, illogically, the more legal these files are the less likely they are to be backed up anywhere. The copy you download of the upcoming US premiere of 24, season 5, will be mirrored (illegally) all over the place. The copy you buy of next week's Desperate Housewives from iTunes will be replaceable from only one (legal) source, if that, and the video you took yourself of the goldfinches at your bird feeder is probably the only copy. The fact that most people's computer knowledge is on the level of my friend's makes the single-copy scenario even more likely.

Gradually, more and more indigerate people are buying digital cameras and puzzling their way through learning to upload all their personal photos to their PCs. Soon we won't need natural catastrophes like hurricanes and fires to see people sobbing on the news, "I've lost everything." A simple hard disk crash will suffice.

What files are where?

And that's without the archive problem: many users have terrible trouble figuring out what files are where. My own solution for pictures is a single photos directory in which I create a subdirectory named for the day's date whenever I want to transfer pictures across. That's not infallible, but I can usually make a pretty guess when I might have taken the photograph I'm searching for, so it works well for me. (I also store my file copies of finished articles in date-labelled subdirectories, so what can I say, that's how I think about things.)

This is not solely a Microsoft problem, though Microsoft could have done a lot to fix it. Apple, for example, managed to put together a seamless backup service with dotmac. Why, when the industry talks about making computers easier to use, doesn't it include backups? Why doesn't AOL offer online backup as part of the service its users pay a premium for? Why don't ISPs offering all-in service with Web space and email include online backup? Why doesn't Windows pop up a reminder once a week that offers to back up 'My Documents' and any other data directories you specify and prompts you to ?insert blank CD?? Why are we so damn sloppy about something this important?

I know, I know, backing stuff up isn't sexy. It's boring, and years of increasingly reliable hardware has made us over-confident and arrogant. Microsoft tried a while back to make it easier by creating a central data directory (which hackers enjoy being able to exploit), and other software programs fail to cooperate, so many users have no idea where their important data actually is stored and have trouble finding it to make copies.

It's 2006. We?ve been at this computer lark now for more than 20 years. We know data gets lost; we know disc and file formats change with frightening regularity; we know that all this stuff is flaky (after my Guardian piece on digitising my video collection a kindly reader wrote in, alarmed, warning me not to trust the home-burned DVDs I'm using for temporary storage - magnetic videotape, he correctly wrote, is likely to last longer). Yet we keep taking bigger and bigger risks with stuff we care more and more about. It's a bad moon rising

As for my friend, she started out with an error message at boot-up warning of a missing file, tried to repair that by copying files, then the machine changed its mind about what the administrator password was, and instructions we found for her on the Web didn?t help, and she?s spending this weekend reinstalling Windows?

Happy New Year.

Tags? , , , and last but not least: . And picture: courtesy Joan Collins.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).