Tuesday, August 29, 2006

E-mail Migration Blues

Picture a man of the 1980s. Or the 1880s. Or the 1780s. He keeps an active correspondence. Today he's getting new furniture for his study. He empties the drawers of his old desk and lines up the contents on the sideboard. He lifts the mail folders out of the file cabinet and stacks them on the floor along one wall. With the aid of some strong helper, he then gets rid of the old desk and file cabinet, and puts the new ones into place. Half an hour later he's working again. Everything's in place, not one old letter or draft lost. He can do this any number of times through his working years, and his papers will still be in order. Some of them will one day make an historian very happy.

My dad has an old HP laptop that sounds like a hair dryer. It runs Windows 2000 and is full of data from his years as a marketing expert with an electronics company. He's quit his job and must now return the computer to his former employer. Not because the asthmatic thing has any monetary value, but for reasons having to do with business secrets.

My dad has no interest in the company's business secrets, but there's a lot of other data on the machine that's useful to him. He's been moving stuff to his desktop machine with the aid of a 256 MB USB drive for the past few days. Now all that's left is his e-mail folders and address book. And he asked me to help him move the stuff.

I tried, but I couldn't. It's often enormously hard to migrate your e-mail from an old computer to a new one.

In my dad's case, the e-mail program Outlook on the laptop was able to export his mail folders and address book to a 160 MB whopper of a file called a PST or a Personal Folder File. And this file could be copied to the desktop machine. And there was a recent version of Outlook on it (though my dad runs Thunderbird at my suggestion). But between the Outlook version shipping with Windows 2000 and the current XP version, somebody apparently decided to change the PST file format. So I couldn't import the data into Outlook on the desktop machine.

Instead, I tried "repairing" the PST file with arcane software, and I tried copying the entire mail directory on the laptop (400 MB zipped) to the desktop machine over Dropload. Of course, my dad's former employer has seen to it that it's impossible to hook the machine up to the home network. And it has no CD burner.

But I don't think it's going to work. The situation is as if our man of the 1980s or 1880s or 1780s had all his old mail and drafts glued to his desk, so that every time he decided to get new furniture his business would suffer instant amnesia. And our digital "desks" age much faster than a good oaken writing desk.

Everybody knows that computers and software gets upgraded every few years. And there's been e-mail in most homes for a decade. By now, there really should be a standard file format for e-mail migration and easy-to-use functions for migration in the e-mail client software. Historians are going to hate the 1990s and 2000s, the brief era before every person has a Gmail-like lifelong central server account where their correspondence accumulates. Our correspondence just evaporates.

Update 31 August: To my surprise, I got it to work! Copied the entire half-gigabyte mail file via a DAV server (not Dropload) from the laptop to the desktop machine, renamed the existing mail file, gave its former name to the laptop file, and it worked for the mail folders. But not for the address book.

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Blogger Hans said...

Det irriterar mig att jag inte sparade min epost (inte ens viktiga saker) från de första åren jag hade tillgång till epost. I början läste jag den mesta av min post på ett studentkonto som jag inte har kvar, och den är naturligtvis borta. Jag hade även det konto jag använder idag redan då, 1988, men tyvärr använde jag det inte för epost. Det hade varit trevligt att ha kvar även de äldsta breven. Som det är så har jag epost kvar från 1995 och framåt, och de äldsta breven är arkiverade i ett annat format. Jag kan konvertera de gamla arkiven men det är både jobbigt och tråkigt. Jag ska se till att det blir gjort någon gång...

Jag känner mig rimligt säker på att den epost jag skriver hädanefter kommer att finnas kvar om jag vill gräva i den under kommande år, och redan nu gräver jag regelbundet i gammal epost. Men hur blir det sen? Jag undrar om det kommer att finnas något sätt att spara epost från en person till en annan. Jag har ärvt åtskilliga gamla brev som min farfar och farmor skickade mellan sig från sent 1930-tal och ett eller två årtionden framåt. Jag har haft mycket nöje av att läsa dem, och de har gett mig en mycket intressant inblick i hur livet var förr. Visserligen en inblick med många brister eftersom brevsamlingen verkar vara långt ifrån komplett, men dock. Jag undrar om min egen korrespondens kommer att finnas kvar och vara läsbar på ett motsvarande sätt?

29 August, 2006 20:42  
Blogger Martin said...

I agree! Future generations will probably have some sort of routine when a person dies, to copy all her on-line data into the National Archives.

29 August, 2006 20:59  
Anonymous Teudimundo said...

That's one reason why I think people should use open source programs with open source formats, the suggestion of using Thunderbird was correct.

This is a nice example that I can use when I try
to explain the advantages of open formats.

30 August, 2006 10:18  
Blogger Martin said...

If the Open Source programmer community equipped Thunderbird with encyclopaedic knowledge of old mail folder formats, then the easiest migration path from Outlook and other proprietary programs would point to Thunderbird.

Actually, the main reason that I switched to T-bird was the glacial slowness and clunkiness of Outlook. I also like T-bird's Bayesian spam filter. I've used the same e-mail address since 1995 and it's pretty widely spread over the web and sundry newsgroups. Let's just say that I do not feel overlooked by purveyors of erectile dysfunction drugs.

30 August, 2006 10:43  
Anonymous Teudimundo said...

Obviously it would be nice to have such a list of import filters. But consider that if the format is proprietary, so it's not always possile to know which is the layout of data inside.

30 August, 2006 12:19  
Anonymous Nihonshu said...

Cant you just forward the mail from his computer and outlook to an (or several) temporary new accounts? Like a gmail or hotmail account?

It can of course take some time.. but still...

31 August, 2006 00:04  
Blogger Martin said...

Yes, using slave labour that would be entire doable.

31 August, 2006 10:59  

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