What are some old proprietary file formats that have become unreadable?
April 10, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

What are some old proprietary file formats that have become unreadable due to the vendor going bust, withdrawing support, losing documentation, or otherwise disappearing?

There are plenty of abandonware products out there which save data that no other software could read, simply because that data has no meaning outside the context of that application - e.g. games. So ignoring those, I'm thinking about data that could feasibly have some utility in another application.

Like, maybe an old spreadsheet program that nobody has written a converter for. But I can't think of any instance where reverse engineering has not come along and saved the day.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Looks like Microsoft Works 3.0 or 4.0 can only be read by Microsoft Works 3.0 or 4.0.
posted by scruss at 1:18 PM on April 10, 2012

F*ing Appleworks.
posted by quarterframer at 1:26 PM on April 10, 2012

Here's a similar Slashdot thread.

Personally I've run into versions of .xls (Excel 5.0 era) files that seem to no longer work with the latest versions of Office. (but luckily you can still open them with OpenOffice or Libre)
posted by samsara at 1:32 PM on April 10, 2012

MacDraw. I know someone whose father has much of his professional life's work in MacDraw files. They can't be opened with anything else. He keeps a computer or two around just for that purpose.
posted by alms at 1:36 PM on April 10, 2012

My bulletproof HP LaserJet 1000 stopped working after HP stopped making drivers for it to work on anything past Windows XP (and stated they never would). I'm convinced this was entirely a matter of trying to get me to buy a new LaserJet, but the joke's on them: now I just print stuff at work.
posted by smitt at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2012

See if you can research what formats MacLinkPlus (now discontinued) used to convert. Back when I was in IT, that was a great Swiss Army knife for interconverting files of various provenance, including Microsoft Works documents of various versions.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:03 PM on April 10, 2012

posted by TheRaven at 2:24 PM on April 10, 2012

I know many scientists that keep old macs around for using statview, a pretty nice stats package that never made the jump to OSX.
posted by rockindata at 2:26 PM on April 10, 2012

I hate to be the one doing this, but cursory googling reveals that people appear to have found ways to read or convert (e.g., reverse-engineer) both Works 3.0/4.0 and MacDraw files.

smitt mentions drivers, which is a great answer to your question, but almost feels like cheating at the same time. As it is, I've already seen people having problems with older hardware (not just printers) due to the shift to 64-bit...one could say that 32-bit windows drivers (and binaries in general) aren't fully compatible in anything but 32-bit windows, and that likely applies for most other OS/Architecture combinations. Then again, things like ReactOS, FreeDOS, and DOSBox exist, so maybe it isn't that easy...

Some older archive formats may fit the profile, though.
posted by mysterpigg at 2:35 PM on April 10, 2012

I know that my company uses Handspring handheld devices with a bar code scanner to scan in computer inventory. I think that inventory is kept on a Mac running OS 9.

I shudder as to what will happen when those break. (We're not a small company)
posted by Hactar at 2:52 PM on April 10, 2012

I'm thinking some old 68k mac formats might be marooned. Are .sit or .hqx still used? Amiga too, maybe. And of course you could point to proprietary datafile formats not directly used by humans, such as those often found in game installs (although those are sometimes more common formats than they seem to be, obscured by changed extensions.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:52 PM on April 10, 2012

OS9 (and old Mac HW) supporting a mission critical app for a "large company" is surely courting disaster....are you running this under emulation on a G4/5?
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:54 PM on April 10, 2012

Here's one that causes me headaches frequently: old software formats embedded in another (old) document format. In principle, both are readable, but the crappy embedding protocols used mean that if I try to open the original document (say, for example an old WordPerfect for Windows 6.0 file) in Word, the text opens up, but the illustrations and graphs (embedded COM/OLE objects from old illustration packages) aren't easy to open at all. If I could save the embedded objects as files, I might have a chance at importing the figure or table into a modern illusatration package. However, in practice, extracting a usable binary for an object with no server registered, in a third-party application (Word) has turned out to be extremely hairy. For the level of work involved, it's easier to simply scan in hardcopies of the original documents and call it done.
posted by bonehead at 3:07 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

An older (MS-DOS) Word Perfect password protected document. I can't recall which version, 5 or 6, but I recall having this issue a year or two ago and there was nothing (including third party wares) that would open it.

FU Word Perfect... never again will I lock up anything important in a proprietary format.
posted by crapmatic at 3:14 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think that the Amiga IFF format is pretty well dead. I haven't seen an app in a long time which claimed to understand it. In particular, the Amiga HAM mode for graphics relied on a particular hardware feature which no one uses any more.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:18 PM on April 10, 2012

My first digital camera was a Kodak DC120, purchased in 1997, which had a 1 megapixel sensor. You could save files in its native raw format ".kdx" or "kdn" if memory serves me, in addition to saving jpegs.

...can't do anything with those raw files now, but I did see the future of photography way back then.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:34 PM on April 10, 2012

The Yamaha SU700 sampler saved its data in its own special format (some sort of modified AIFF). Someone started trying to work it out, but gave up.

The only way to get a sample out of it is analog.
posted by pompomtom at 4:42 PM on April 10, 2012

Excel 2010 will no longer open lotus 123 .wk4 files, nor is there any kind of viewer that I'm aware of.
posted by canoehead at 5:46 PM on April 10, 2012

> I think that the Amiga IFF format is pretty well dead.

Nah, Irfanview will read them. IFF is alive and well and is every WAV file you've ever heard. Well, kinda; WAV is RIFF, which is basically a little-endian version of the (big-endian) IFF spec.
posted by scruss at 5:53 PM on April 10, 2012

Well, at the moment, basically none. You can find working versions of nearly any media reader and software somewhere in our world, going all the way back to wax cylinders. Before that, I think you can argue all data storage was directly human readable. Assuming you have an infinite amount of money and time you can recreate any of them.

The only real exceptions are when the keys are lost. This means DRM wrapped encrypted standards or if a language itself is forgotten.

If you mean strictly in a consumer context, all the above are pretty spot-on. I wouldn't call any of them dead or inaccessible though, just very hard to access. Just because it's 2012 doesn't mean you can't turn on an Apple II and load from cassette.
posted by chairface at 11:41 PM on April 10, 2012

Unless you happen to have an OS8 or OS9 Mac, WriteNow files are pretty much unreadable these days.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:55 AM on April 11, 2012

I'm thinking some old 68k mac formats might be marooned. Are .sit or .hqx still used?

While I haven't seen a .hqx file in ages, one can still run across .sit files, both legacy and relatively recently-created. Luckily, StuffitExpander still exists, and is actually Lion-compatible.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:59 AM on April 11, 2012

Soon, anything written on pre OSX 10.7, powerpc software that isnt ported to intel!

Thanks Apple for breaking Rosetta!
posted by lalochezia at 8:00 AM on April 11, 2012

DIVX Discs
posted by wcfields at 1:06 PM on April 11, 2012

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