Don’t let aged files byte the dust

Simon Eccles
Monday, November 23, 2015

There’s a fine collection of old Macintosh computers in my attic and garage. A 1988 Mac SE, a 1995 PowerBook laptop with tiny mono screen, a 1996 Performa 6200 and a huge metal G5 from 2002. They all work, but my wife doesn’t understand why I want to use up all that storage space.

The reason is that every other blue moon or so, I need to open up computer files dating back to the dawn of digitally produced magazines – roughly from 1990 onward.

Surely in these enlightened days of clouds and automated back-ups, nobody needs to worry about old files? Aren’t they automatically transferred from storage medium to new medium, server to server?

This question threw up a case where simply archiving wasn’t enough. PrintWeek features editor Nick Mansley pitched the idea to me after trawling through the mag’s archive and finding that a QuarkXPress Drupa layout from only 10 years ago couldn’t be opened on his current system.

However, I could open it, because I still have a 2011 copy of QXP 9 on my Mac Pro (itself from 2009). This runs Snow Leopard, the last Apple OS that could still open ‘Cocoa’ programs that had originally been written for the non-Unix System 9. After that the Lion OS and its successors could only open ‘Carbon’ applications written for the current Unix-based OS X code. 

Ironically, today’s Adobe InDesign CC 2015 can open some old QuarkXPress files that QXP 10 and 2015 cannot, up to QXP v.4. Meanwhile, Quark senior product manager for Europe, Matthias Guenther, says QXP 9 could open all Mac and Windows documents types back to 1990’s v.3.1. However, QXP 10 and today’s QXP 2015 only open files from v.7 onwards. 

Guenther says: “In QXP 7 we implemented a lot of modern technologies, such as OpenType, Unicode, JDF, transparencies, drop shadows, etc. We decided to cut the fat in QXP 10, so that we do not carry over, for example, type engines that were invented in the early 1990s.”

However, he stresses that Quark has not left users in the lurch – there is a free downloadable opener for older files, that can open single files or batches in nested folders, details of which can be found at the end of this feature. Nevertheless, PrintWeek’s small Quark problem illustrates a wider challenge across publishing, and to a lesser extent pre-press and print: if your archived files are likely to be needed in five, 10, 20 or 100 years’ time, how do you keep them readable? 

Media mix-up

The most easily solvable issue is storage media. A few years ago industry pundits liked to point out that storage media keeps changing and is often unsupported by later systems. Examples abound throughout pre-press: the first phototypesetters and early PCs used 5.25in floppy disks. Macs used 3.5in floppies. By the mid-90s nearly all computers shipped with 3.5in floppies, so if you’d kept your vital files on 5.25in disks, you couldn’t get at them. 

It was much the same story with early third-party ‘mass storage’ systems. SyQuest in the 1990s offered 40MB and 80MB cartridges, followed by Iomega’s Zip (100MB) and Jaz drives, which used 100MB and 1GB removable cartridges. In the days before broadband and Gigabit Ethernet, cartridges were the normal way to deliver large files to pre-press houses. 

So what happened to all those files and back-ups on Zip and Jaz? People who could look ahead a bit would have transferred them to other media. Over the past two decades the price of hard drives and RAID systems has fallen while capacity has risen dramatically. Today there’s no excuse not to store all your files forever, instead of wiping them to free up space.

Another reason for keeping a few older computers is that connections to external storage drives (and scanners and printers) changed over the years. Initially Apple and to a lesser extent PCs used SCSI as the primary  interface to external devices. This was dropped in favour of FireWire and USB in the late 1990s. There were a few SCSI converters and aftermarket expansion cards, but finding one that still works today may be harder than using eBay to find an old computer with SCSI interface built in. 

Cloudy prospects

The past five years have seen the growth of cloud operations, which include storage services. These can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand your files are stored off-site on server farms and disk arrays that are constantly maintained, updated and backed up. If you need more storage you simply buy extra space without having to buy and house your own disk arrays. On the other hand it’s rental, so if you stop paying, you lose access to your files, possibly for ever. Local back-ups are still useful. 

The larger challenge in long-term storage is that native file formats may go out of date. If you think you’ll need files in five or 10 years time (as book and magazine publishers may), don’t rely on native formats. Export them as something non-proprietary, such as PDF or XML for documents, TIFF or JPEG for images. 

Native backtracking

Adobe has a commendable record of support of old native files, some of which could be getting on for 28 years old now. Today’s Illustrator CC can open every .AI native file from 1987 onward, Photoshop will open .PSD files from 1990, and InDesign opens every .INDD file from 2000. Their support for non-proprietary formats is pretty good too: Illustrator with EPS, Photoshop with TIFF and JPEG, and as mentioned, InDesign can open QuarkXPress documents and can also import and place standard formats including EPS and PDF layouts as well as many graphic formats. 

Photoshop in particular can open a lot of older and more obscure image formats either as standard or through third-party plug-ins. However, some have fallen off the list over the years – it no longer opens Scitex CT pre-press image files, for instance, and the 1990s Kodak PhotoCD format can now only be opened through an old standalone utility.

Plug-in specialist Markzware offers a range of tools for converting documents. The Q2ID plugin lets InDesign open any QXP file up to today’s 2015 version, while its ID2Q XTension likewise lets Quark users open InDesign files. Both cost £157.

PDF editing

Adobe also developed PDF in the early 1990s and today’s Acrobat utility can still read and write every file version back to 1.2 (the first version used in pre-press as it supports CMYK). 

PDF is the dominant file exchange and delivery format in print today, and there may be archived files dating back 20 years. In fact PDF/A, first introduced in 2005, is specifically intended for long-term archiving. While it has been adopted by government and corporate bodies, it’s apparently not much used for print work. Its big benefit is enforced embedding of fonts, but you get that anyway with the various flavours of PDF/X that are widely used for print. 

Printing old PDFs is easy, but if you need to edit them it can be more complicated. Acrobat and Illustrator can edit PDFs in a fairly limited way. Third-party editors such as Enfocus PitStop and OneVision Solvero offer more extensive editing capabilities.

Again, Markzware has an app for that: a plug-in called PDF2DTP that converts PDFs to InDesign files. It costs £157 for a year’s subscription. According to European managing director David Dilling: “For some things a PDF editor is just not reliable or efficient. Text, for instance – it is far more reliable to edit this in InDesign.”

File conversion services

Finally, what to do if you have files for programs that went out of production years ago, such as Aldus PageMaker (widely used in the 1980s and 1990s)? 

Unless you happen to have these still running on really old computers, you’re probably stuck. There are some services that offer to open obsolete files, but it’s something of a lucky dip. 

Markzware’s FlightCheck pre-flight program opens and examines native layout files – an unusual ability as rival pre-flighters only work on PDFs. Having been around since the 1990s means that Markzware still understands how to open formats for defunct programs such as FreeHand or PageMaker. 

A few years ago it started developing a standalone converter called PageZephyr, to open obsolete files and extract content in editable form. However, it didn’t ship a final version and today’s PageZephyr is confined to content searches in InDesign files. Dilling says: “there wasn’t enough of a market requirement to justify it as a separate product. Instead, we offer a service where you send us the files and we convert them, for a fee.” Prices start at £31 for files up to 20MB. 

In the 1990s and 2000s Equilibrium’s DeBabelizer Pro was widely used to open and convert a very wide range of native image files (ie not layouts), with scripting that let you set up batch conversions and apply simple enhancements. Equilibrium stopped developing and supporting DeBabelizer Pro in 2012 in favour of its online file conversion service called MediaRich Server, but it still offers Mac and Windows version 6.2 as a free download. It won’t run on any Mac OS after Snow Leopard though. 

In conclusion, if you are producing documents and images that have the faintest chance of being useful again in a few years’ time, save them as non-proprietary formats such as PDF, XML, TIFF and JPEG, and keep an eye on what Apple and Microsoft do with their operating systems in future. If a major change threatens to deny you access to old files, convert them while you still can. In 10 years’ time you’ll congratulate yourself on your foresight. 


QuarkXPress Document Converter download

Mac: bit.ly/QXP_conv_mac

Windows: bit.ly/QXP_conv_win

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