Sunday, December 19, 2010

Really bad advice corrected

I had an interesting experience recently with a patron at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. I showed up to teach a class and a lady, her husband and her daughter with waiting for me as I walked in. She explained that she had an older Macintosh computer running the last Mac version of Personal Ancestral File. They had come all the way from South Dakota to Mesa for a visit and brought both the older Mac portable computer and a newer PC laptop with the hope that I could help them retrieve the data file from the Mac and transfer it to the PC.

She had come to one of my classes the year before and asked me about the problem at that time. I apparently answered that it would not be a problem to move the file from the Mac to a PC. Everyone she talked to had told her that it couldn't be done. At all. Period. I couldn't believe that anyone would say something like that. Transferring data from a Mac to a PC and from a PC to a Mac is trivial. I can think of four or five ways to accomplish the task, but I only had to use one of them. Fortunately, the PCs at the Family History Center still have 3.5 drives, so all I did was open her file on the Mac, use Personal Ancestral File to create a GEDCOM (Genealogical Data Communications) file on a PC formatted disk and then put the disk in one of the PC's drives and opened it in RootsMagic. I could have used any of the current genealogy programs, including a copy of the now old Personal Ancestral File. It took me about the same time to type this portion of the post as it took to do the entire operation. The key here is that Mac 3.5 drives (almost all of them going back for years) also recognize PC disks. Unfortunately, it doesn't work the other way around.

This particular method of moving the file over from a PC to a Mac will stop working once 3.5 drives completely disappear. But this brings up a more serious problem, the perception that moving information between PCs depends on the manufacturer of the computer or the operating system. That is, some how information on a Mac is unavailable to a PC user. Presently, I work almost entirely on a Mac. Every day I move information from my Mac to my work's PC network. I can do this by opening a document on my Mac, copying the contents and pasting the document into a blank document open on my network access to my office computer, a PC. So, a Word document on my Mac instantly becomes a PC Word document on my office computer while I am sitting at home. Obviously, since a GEDCOM file is nothing more than a specially designed text file, I could move a GEDCOM file the same way.

I could also simply attach the Mac created Word or other file to an E-mail message and mail it to myself at the office or even to iPhone. I can also use any kind of external storage, Flash drive, external hard drive, or whatever to physically copy the file from one computer to another, just as I did with the patron's GEDCOM file. At home, all of my computers are on the same WiFi network, so I can share data between the computers regardless if I am working on a Mac or a PC. I could also use any number of Internet type programs to share the files, from DropBox to Google Docs.

As I have written before, I run Parallels Desktop on my Macs, so I am able to work with both a Mac running OS X and PC running Windows 7 on the same computer at the same time. Because of the program and the hardware, I can copy files back and forth between the Mac portion and the virtual PC portion of the operating systems.

Data files are not always easy to share. Some programs have entirely proprietary file structures that are not recognizable by other applications. One of the reasons for the development of file sharing formats like GEDCOM is to overcome the challenge of unique file structures. Unfortunately, even protocols like GEDCOM are not perfect, a file may be able to be read by a target program but not all of the information in the original file will transfer. One serious consideration of choosing which genealogy program to purchase is the issue of file compatibility. Is there a reliable way to exchange information with other programs running on different computers? That is the focus of the BetterGedcom site; to update and expand the usefulness of the now outdated GEDCOM standard.

It is sad that someone, especially someone purporting to give technical advice, would mistakenly tell my patron that a file from a program like Personal Ancestral File even on an older Macintosh computer, with its built in ability to generate a GEDCOM file, could not transfer its data to another computer.

1 comment:

  1. It is amazing the technological advances we've witnessed in just a short time. Ol' Myrt here remembers when the little 3.5 inch floppies were all the latest rage.

    It behooves each genealogist to keep his data in the "latest" version -- considering both hardware and software as your blog post points out.

    Then the next generation can take up the standard, and continue to update the work of preserving the family history.

    Happy family tree climbing!

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