The Tragedy of Save and Save As

Yesterday, a good friend hit the Save button in MS Excel, left the window open, went and clicked on a few things, came back by clicking on the file — and it reverted to the previous version. The underlying problem was related to file downloading and syncing, but that is not my point. With all of the disk space available, why was the previously saved version not easily recovered? Shouldn’t every single version be saved, intentional or not?

In 1982 I was introduced to the Digital Equipment VAX/VMS operating system on a VAX 11/780 and its unique way of keeping track of multiple versions of files. Every single Save command created a new version of the file, conveniently numbered 1, 2, 3, 4…. Because of limited disk space, a command called PURGE went through and cleaned up the old versions. My favorite command was PURGE /2 which saved the last two versions of each file. I rarely lost any work I could not recover easily.

About 20 years ago, I developed the habit of using Save As every single time I edited a file (beyond trivial corrections). About 10 years ago, I started putting my own revision numbers in the file name, sometimes with the date. At my current company, another engineer got us organized around a specific system. File names start with the date (year first), followed by a version letter, followed by the name. e.g. “140620b My Project Plan”. This has the advantage of listing all of the versions in date/version order.

So, the tragedy is, every time a friend or colleague of mine loses edits because of Save problems, I either say or want to say, “I always use Save As, you should, too.” However logical my conclusion and the success of my method at avoiding loss of work, I don’t get thanked for my tidbit. I get anger and angst because these people believe the Save button should work. They don’t think of it the way we computer science people do, that a new version is put down and then the old version ERASED. And real people (not us geeks) should not have to know this any more than they need to know the spark timing of their car engine. Usually that engine works and so should Save commands. Very sad.

If Windows or MacOS has already implemented good version management or plans to soon – someone point me to the feature. I’ll be interested in seeing how well they do compared to that 1982 VAX system. Not a new idea, folks.