Apple — and, to a lesser extent, other developers such as Microsoft — cannot be relied upon to support old file formats. The responsibility then falls to the user. If you use an app that creates files in a proprietary format, as soon as a new version comes out you should update all of your documents to the new format. It’s not fun to do this, but there will probably never be an easier time. And it may be a lossy process, so you should also keep the versions in the older format.
At WWDC 2005, Steve Jobs quoted some of his favourite reviews for the then-new OS X Tiger release. One in particular, from CBS’ Larry Magid, stood out to me:
I remember writing an article about Lotus 1-2-3 back when the product was released during the 80s … It may have been nearly two decades since I wrote that column, but it took Spotlight less than two seconds to find it.
Unwavering support for older versions of software has a tendency to produce cruft and bugs, but it also means that old-ass files can be launched without too much hassle. I bet Magid could find that article even faster on today’s SSD-equipped Macs, but he’d be damned if he could open it.
Then again, I subscribe to the school of thought that we’re still trying to figure out this digital archival monkey business.1 In the future, I think we will find ways of recovering data from outdated and proprietary formats if that data is really important.
One of my professors works at the Government of Alberta archive, backing up and restoring old recordings to a digital format. Since they’re stored on Government servers, the great irony is that these digital files will, inevitably, be backed up to a magnetic tape. ↩︎