Friday, April 6, 2007

Unchain my files -- and please set them free

I have come to the conclusion that much of our the information/data that we own, is actually not ours. Whether files that we have purchase (e-books, songs etc...) or information that we have created (word documents, spreadsheets and presentations). We can only access them through applications running on the computer that these files "live" on.

I came to this conclusion when I recently had to send my computer in to be fixed. I was glad that the repair (on a 3+ year old computer) was covered. There was one catch, however, I had to send the computer back to the manufacturer for 8 business days.

That left me with a dilemma; how will I get by for close to two weeks without a computer? I am sure that I am not alone; most of us have come to rely upon our computers. I use it for communication (email, instant messaging and social networking), accounting (QuickBooks, on line banking), creative exploits (software coding, presentations, spreadsheets, letters, family photos) and a myriad of other activities (personal and business).

The thought of not being able to access my financial books, old emails or work files associated with the various projects that were in progress was very unsettling. Things happen at such a fast pace these days, not having access to YOUR information can be at best, inconvenient for individuals and at worst, devastating in the case of a small or home based business.

Fortunately, I was able to remove my disk from the computer to be repaired and put it in an enclosure so that I could attach it to a backup computer that I have. I am up and running with my disk, but there are some gotchas.
  1. Even though the data and applications were on my disk, they were not "installed" on my backup computer. I was able to run some applications without installing them. Other programs needed to be installed in order to run them.
  2. Even when I ran the applications, they did not have the settings from my old computer. Even if I had the settings from my old computer, they would not be correct. My C: drive was now the E: drive.
  3. Of course there was the thorny issue of whether I could legally install my software on the backup computer while my old computer was in the shop.
There are other instances when our data is held hostage. Any one who has had to "hotsync" their PDA, upgrade their computer, upgrade an application or buy a new cell phone, has had to rescue their old data.

In my humble opinion, this is a fixable problem. We have the technology to make a person's personal data, portable. There are two things that could go a long way to "un-shackling" your information.

Portable hard drives
Back in the day (so to speak) hard drives were large and fragile. You would not want to carry them around. Today we can slip 60GB right into our pockets (think iPod). Add USB and blue tooth connectivity and voila you have your personal data available to you and any of the computing devices that you use. Your PC at home, your PDA, your MP3 player and your automobile's entertainment and communications system. In order to do this properly, this storage device would have to have encryption (for privacy in case it was lost) and there would need to be utilities that would back up your personal data (preferable to a web account for easy recovery).

Universal standards for information representation
Today, most applications store their information in a proprietary format. So if I use outlook to manage my email and contacts, I cannot use other mail clients like Mozilla Thunderbird to look at the file. Even moving from Outlook Express to Outlook requires some sort of "migration". One of the reasons for proprietary formats is performance (speed of loading the information and size of the data file). While in some cases that may still be a valid argument, the advances in technology have made performance less of an issue than portability. In any event, software makers can support open standards with the caveat that your performance may suffer a wee bit. I think that there are many among us who would opt for "portable", always accessible, data even if it takes a few extra seconds to access it

I will admit that this is probably not an issue that is on everybody's mind all of the time. I will also admit that rather than propose a comprehensive solution, I have just presented a couple of ideas. Given the growing dependence on content and data (the stuff in our computers, PDAs etc...), it may be time to start giving it some thought and opening up a wider dialog on this.

I'd love to hear your comments on this.

-- RMKnightStar

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