If your proprietary RAW workflow dies

Nobody likes to think about faithful friends dying, but Micah Walter has brought up again a subject that I try not to think about very much: data lock-in. As data-locked-in computer users go, I'm not very locked in. I mostly live in text files, source code, email and the web. I have some confidence that my source control repositories will be readable for some time to come and that any migrations from them will be automatically handled by the next source control system to come along (you can already see that happening with Git-svn).

My photography, however, is another story and it rather scares the pants off me when I think about it too much. I have hundreds of gigabytes and tens of thousands of images on my hard drive, all of which represent precious memories and some of which are pretty good photographs in their own right. Pictures of my children's births, their first birthdays, family holidays, great trips I've taken, places I've been and so on. Years of my life in visual form.

But all of that is locked into proprietary formats. All of it. Firstly, the RAW files are Canon CR2 files from an EOS 350D and a 30D. That's the first thing that scares me. What happens when the 30D is a twenty-five-year-old camera? I'll only be in my early 50s when that situation arises and hopefully still doing a lot of photography. What will the computers and operating systems look like in the year 2032? Is Apple really committing to build a RAW decoder for the 30D into every future version of Mac OS X, Mac OS XI and the new-for-2030 A.D. Mac OS XII? What if Apple 'starts over' again with another OS once X has seen better days? Will they build RAW converters for prehistoric digital cameras?

If you think this is a silly question, think about the word processors that were common in 1982 and ask yourself how many of their files can be read in Pages or Microsoft Word today with zero loss of fidelity.

So that's just the RAW files themselves. I'm also locked into Aperture. I'm not locked in through metadata, but I am locked in through Aperture's proprietary database of all the image adjustments I've made to each of my photos. This concern isn't even one for the future. It's one for right now. If I wanted to, how would I take all my RAW masters and move to Lightroom, preserving the edits I've made in Aperture and keeping all of those edits non-destructive? I simply don't think this can be done today.

Now I have no evidence that Aperture is dying - I do have some circumstantial evidence that suggests the exact opposite - but one never knows what the future holds. We can't even predict five years hence in technology, never mind what could happen within the useful lifetime of important photographs shot in RAW today.

What to do? I honestly have no idea, and it's worrying to think about. Textual documents you can always read and sometimes get some content out of them, maybe even recreate important documents in modern formats. You can't recreate images. The best you can hope for is that you'll be able to transcode the RAW format into some modern file type. You can take metadata with you through XMP, but what about those image adjustments?