The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Stanford University have partnered to save for posterity more than 15,000 software programs created in the early days of microcomputing.
The 18-month project aims to make these titles, most of which were created between 1975 and 1995, available to researchers, and, eventually, to the general public. (See also "20 Games That Changed Gaming Forever.")
"We don't really know what people will need this [old software] for, but we know this is important. This software is who we've become," said Barbara Guttman, computer scientist and director of NIST's National Software Reference Library (NSRL). "Spreadsheets have changed the way we live."
In this 18-month project, NSRL will copy and dissect a software library of 15,000 titles from the Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection in the History of Microcomputing, held by the Stanford University Library. Considered to be one of the largest collections of obsolete software, this collection came into Stanford's possession in 1998 as part of its ongoing effort to preserve digital materials for research purposes.
NSRL will offer the artifacts it generates about the software to researchers, while Stanford will build the infrastructure and secure the permissions to allow the public to run these programs through emulation software.
Floppies, cartridges and cassettes
Most of the original software was released on CDs, floppy disks, game console cartridges or cassette tapes. Commercial software makes up the bulk of this collection, in either in full or trial versions. Many of the programs are games—they include an early version of Sid Meier's Civilization and of course the iconic Tetris—but the collection includes a fair amount of business software as well, such as legacy copies of Quicken and Microsoft Excel. (See also "Retro gaming challenge! Windows 8 versus classic PC.").
At least some of the software has copy protection, but Guttman doesn't see this as a roadblock to saving the software. Most protective schemes in this pre-Internet time involved the user entering a key that was typically found on the program's packaging. The project is also scanning the packaging art as well, so these keys will be preserved and can be used to unlock the programs in perpetuity.
Guttman also doesn't foresee any major problems running the software in the years to come. NIST has a lot of the most widely used legacy "operating environments," she said, including a wide swath of legacy hardware, operating systems and file systems. The agency can easily run programs written for even the earliest versions of Microsoft DOS, Apple or various versions of Unix. She did admit there would be challenges with some more obscure platforms—such as the Commodore or early game consoles—though Stanford is investigating ways to run this software on current platforms through the use of emulators.
New venture for NSRL
NSRL took on the project in part to expand the scope of its services. Today, the NIST library primarily supplies law enforcement agencies with digital fingerprints, or hashes, of computer programs to ease the work of identifying pertinent material on seized computers. The fingerprints allow agencies to save time by identifying those files on a computer—such as OS files—that they don't need to examine in detail.
NSRL will make hashes of Stanford's software, as well as bit-by-bit copies of the software. So while law enforcement investigators could make use of this material, it is more likely it will be used by other types of investigators, Guttman said. Researchers could use the material, for instance, to examine the effects of violent video games during the time period that the software was in release.
The project is also looking for donations from the public to support the work. People interested in contributing should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.