Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Aging In Cyberspace

February 2011

By Mike Gould

One great thing about my job (that's the Mac consulting biz, not the photography, web, laser, etc. businesses I run on the side - well, they're all on the side, since I retired from the UM and started being a serial entrepreneur and writing really long parenthesized introductions...) is that I get to meet a wide variety of computer users, of all types and ages. And as this seems to be my week for helping out the older users out there, let's talk about growing old along with your computer.

I'm just this close (holding fingers about an inch apart) to geezerhood myself, so this issue has a special poignancy for me. Here are some stories about dealing with older users and the computers that love them. Names have been changed to protect the elderly.

When Good Data Gets Old
Professor Senex met me while I was working at the U of M, and had me drop by from time to time to update his system and fix things. He presented a particular challenge because he is severely hearing-impaired and didn't like to wear his hearing aid. I did a lot of yelling over the phone: "ALL RIGHT, NOW WHAT DO YOU SEE IN THE WINDOW?" He also had a lot of data on old floppies and that was a problem. You see, back in the day, floppies were single-sided and held around 720K of memory. (No, I'm not going to get sidetracked and talk about what floppies were, you young person you; go look it up). You could back up exactly 8.7 bazillion of these onto a thumb drive, if you could find a computer that would talk to both.

The good professor had a bunch of these antiques and I could not get the data off. Single-sided floppies only lasted a year or two before being supplanted by double-sided, then high-density, then, well, you get the idea. I dug up the oldest Mac I could find and no go. I told him there were services that might be able to do this, but he decided the 25-year-old data wasn't worth it.

Lesson learned: make sure you periodically transfer your old data to newer formats. Do you think there will still be Zip drives in the technical vastness of the future? I don't think so. USB flash drives? DVD players? Who knows? I keep my old stuff on Firewire hard drives, and Firewire seems to be dying out. Fortunately drives keep getting bigger so there is room to dump older stuff into my current drives.

As an experiment, I just tried to open one of my older files, the wedding vows I wrote when I got married back in 1994 - Uh oh: "Word can't open this kind of document" (a Word 2.0 doc or something.) In this case I'm lucky: my standard text editor, BBEdit, can open it just fine. Otherwise I would be in trouble with my wife. Please don't tell her.

Runs in the Family
My mom left behind a bunch of old floppies as well, but double-sided so I could dig out the stories she wrote for her grandchildren (about an elf named Carrot Top). I have all her files on CD, as well as my current hard drive. Mom was pretty savvy about her Macs; she went through 3 of them in the years before her passing, updating them on a regular basis.

A Kodak Senior Moment
Dr. Nikon was a client of mine for a while; at 92 he was my oldest customer. He is still pretty sharp, and likes using his fancy digital camera. I showed him how to print his photos, and even sold him one of my photo printers when I upgraded it. He was funny about trusting backups: he would shoot a compact flash card full of photos, download them to his computer, and then put the card away as a backup. I was glad that he was backing up, and explained that CDs were much cheaper than chips, and the usual procedure was to wipe and re-use the cards, but he felt more secure with his boxes of write-once compact flash.

In my experience, older people love the Internet as a means of staying in touch with their kids and grandchildren. There is an old saying that grandkids are the killer app for digital cameras. And I have set up several Macs for video conferencing so folks can see their progeny in real time.

Off-Line and Loving It
But not everybody wants to be online. My latest client is the father of someone who called me from California looking for an Ann Arbor-based Mac expert. I went to his place and discovered that he has no online access, and doesn't want any. He just wants to track his various retirement accounts using money management software and bank statements. The software keeps asking him to connect so it can go to his bank, and he is getting tired of telling his new laptop to take a hike.

And here again, it was new stuff trying to work with old stuff. He had a 10-year old iMac (the oddly-shaped blue jobbie; first one I've seen in a while) and his son had him update to a brand new MacBook Pro. (That's the problem with Macs, they just won't die when you need them to.) A computer store had transferred all his data, and the new software was able to convert the old financial file formats, but some of the data was missing and a couple of the files wouldn't open at all. It turns out that the iMac was actually starting to fail, and would crash from time to time; I'm afraid one of those crashes may have damaged some open files. I'm still working on it; we'll see if we can't affect a rescue. He was lucky enough to print out much of the data, so we may be able to re-load the numbers if need be.

Next week I'm scheduled to set up a new iMac for the mother of someone who contacted me from New Jersey. Can't wait to see how that goes.

Mike Gould was a mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of the FacTotem constellation, builds lasers into lunchboxen, performs with the Illuminatus Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to

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