Today amid a flurry of tweets between Andy Jackson, David Clipsham and Euan Cochrane discussing a couple of my problematic PowerPoint 4 files, Euan suggested “Just emulate the PPTs”. It was just part of a tweet, so you have to expand a bit; he was suggesting essentially that we run a Mac System 7 emulator (or similar), and run a copy of PowerPoint 4.0 for Mac on that.
My heart sank!
Emulation is a good solution to some digital preservation problems in many ways, as it brushes away many of the problems of accessing and using old content in today’s environment. Instead, it lets you access and use the old content in its old environment. But this can introduce a whole set of different problems. How well do you now know that old environment? How easy was it to use? How reliable was it? What dependencies are there? How well is the emulation implemented (and in particular are any important elements missing)?
As part of researching my obsolete PowerPoint problem, I’ve been re-reading old email folders, including my Mac email folder from 1995-2000, when I was at Warwick University as Director of the UK Electronic Libraries Programme. Here’s a typical example of a desperate message from 1997:
“Martin, I have un-installed the [version of MS Office] on Michael’s CD, and re-installed (standard installation) the one on your CD. Same problem (open Word document, go to view outline, system freezes). S**t.
“The crashes have been playing havox with the disk & I had to give it a full Norton to fix it: bit map error, MDB error and a dozen or more file errors.”
“My reasons for interest in the upgrade stems from the serious flakiness of 7.5.2 compared with the previous version. Since I moved to the Power processor and the new version of the OS, I have had innumerable frezes, often associated with printing, as well as the closedown problem more recently. Life is getting seriously painful at times. There may of course be another reason for all this.
Then there’s a lot of stuff about connecting printers. You get the idea: systems in those days were MUCH more flaky than they are now. The thought of having to try to install a software package on an emulated system base without a strong team of experienced people nearby was… worrying!
I had another reason for concern. In my previous job I had a go at recovering “lost” files for a few folk. One of these was an Amiga diskette with a student dissertation on it, for a member of the DCC staff. The Amiga diskette is an odd thing, but that’s another story. We managed to recover the bits from the diskette, but the only way we could make sense of the contents was to feed it to an Amiga emulator. In that environment, my colleague could see, read and edit his dissertation. He was pretty chuffed about that. But, we could find no way to extract the contents of his dissertation from the emulated environment and get it into today’s environment. So there it was, kind of frozen in the past, visible through this special lens, but not really something he could USE.
So that’s why the idea of emulation was worrying me!