Open Source Isn't Necessarily Free From Bit Rot

One of the much-discussed advantages of open source software is that it should make it easier for future generations to access data. But in his keynote address at Linux.conf.au in Brisbane, "father of the Internet" Vint Cerf noted that even open source systems weren't completely free from the challenge of data being created that might not be accessible to future software, a problem he refers to as "bit rot".

Cerf's keynote ranged over a huge range of topics and I suspect he'll be getting quoted a lot for the rest of Linux Week 2011. But one immediately striking observation he made concerned what might happen if someone sat down with a copy of Windows 3000 and then tried to access a PowerPoint 97 file. Microsoft is infamous for file format changes, but the problem goes beyond any single vendor, as Cerf made clear:

That's not a dig at Microsoft — bit rot is more complicated than it looks. Even if we have open source, it's not 100% clear that the operating system functionality would be preserved for 1,000 years. If someone decides not to maintain a particular OS for a few years, you're out of luck. What you're doing with Linux is helpful, but I am worried that we are not thinking our way through preserving our digital stuff.

While people often point out that we have paper documents that are thousands of years old, an audience member noted that we tend to ignore the fact that the vast majority of documents from that era have also become inaccessible. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying to fix the problem once we're away of it. As Cerf noted:

In the future, people may wonder about the early 21st century because what we created may not be interpretable. We may just have a pile of rotten bits.


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