Salvaging memories:The story of photos lost in XD picture card

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On of the many weaknesses of capitalism is the huge loss of resources and inconvenience due to unnecessary duplication of efforts. Whenever there is a potential area to work on, every company jumps in the band wagon and come up with their own 'best product' -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it gets bad when each of these products are mutually incompatible; sometimes due to practical reasons, but more often intentionally! Take region codes in DVD disks, a move which was clearly intentional, and a childish one at that: Even the greenest of computer enthusiasts these days know how to download that two kilobyte program, burn it to a CD, pop it in and select the region you want! Another joke these days is those third generation phones distributed in Japan by Vodafone. They are generic phone machines that work both in Japan and overseas services. But Vodafone intentionally 'locks' the phones to Japanese system -- the result is a flourishing cottage industry of 'phone un-lockers' who charge anything between 1000 to several thousands of Japanese yen to unlock these phones. So much for the customer oriented services of corporate giants.

This story is along a bit different line: About digital camera memory cards. There are a handful of popular formats each promoted by different company. We have several digital cameras at home and believe me -- each of them uses a different type of memory! This story is about Olympus 1GB XD card - Type M (e.g. [1]). XD card is a proprietary format supported only by FujiFilm and Olympus products. I bought this card for our FujiFilm Finepix F810 camera. With a super CCD sensor producing 12 megapixal images, 1GB was not a luxury. I made it a point to call both Fujifilm and Olympus customer support to verify that this marriage between Fujifilm F810 and Olympus 1GB-M is a lasting one. Both companies were positive.

Usually we download the images to the computer by connecting the camera directly with the provided USB cable. The downside was, the four companies whose cameras we own (Canon, Nikon, FujiFilm and Sony) all had decided to make the home-end of the USB cable just a bit different from each other, so that we had to keep track of four cables! Everything was peachy until one day I decided enough is enough and bought a multi-card reader, a one that could handle all my card types (i.e. Compact Flash, SD, XD and Memorystick). Now, I can just pop-out a card from the camera and stick in the reader to get the photos out! Good bye cables! I was happy until I tried to copy some 600 MB worth of photos (including some on our second daughter's first few days). Only one out of few hundred photos copied to the computer and the copying stooped with the not-so-helpful error message "invalid parameter". I could not copy, view or move other files. When the card is reinserted to the camera, it showed some images, but not all. A large number (around 50 I guess) were missing.

The helpful Olympus support!

In the panic, I called Olympus technical support. The support 'engineer' asked me the usual not-so-intelligent questions (Did you check whether the hard disk is full? Did you push the card all the way in to the reader? ...). When he exhausted all those, in came the best technical advice of the 21st century! He asked me to

  1. Go to a camera shop.
  2. Get the shop to print my photos
  3. Then format the card and see if the problem goes away.

So much for digital technology! This is like the proverbial goat that got its head stuck in the pot! The man of wisdom advices the owner to first behead the goat -- then to smash the pot!!

I firmly told him that I did not buy a digital camera just to get prints of photographs. Apparently he did not appreciate my point, but nevertheless suggested why I don’t try with the card in the camera connected via the USB cable to the computer. I needed some time to find the old cable so, I had to hang up.

The next day I tried the cable-trick, but with no results. I was almost about to give up and format the card. But, before doing that I checked the Internet. There were many recovery services, but for a fee. Even paying is fine, but one needs to mail the card and wait for its return. There were a few, free albeit crippled utilities for download. One was Zero Assumption Recovery (ZAR).


The utility has a separate mode for recovering images from camera memory cards. It analyzes the memory card to find possible data files. The results are shown in a graphical map. Then it goes on the recover the files in to a hard drive.

For my problem, ZAR works quite well. It recovered additional 84 images than those were shown in the camera, most of which were the ones that I was trying to find. Interestingly, there were some uninvited guests also -- photographs taken ages before, but somehow left in the hidden memory of the card (See this article, if this sounds strange).

The lesson

I guess one can learn some valuable lessons from this experience, arguably the most important being, one should not pay too much attention to what 'technical support' guys say. Now, this is not a conclusion I reach based solely on this experience, but I have had some 'nice' experiences with technical support resources for items ranging from Oracle DBMS to Dell Personal computers. So, apparently this is not a problem with a particular company, but a much deeper general issue. I now believe that this is an inherent problem with the almost bygone era of compartmentalized knowledge. A handful -- or even hundreds -- of paid technical resource persons of a given company can have only a very much restricted knowledge on various things that have the potential of going wrong. On the other hand, with the aid of tools like Internet, when the problem is laid in front of the whole (global) community of interested users, the potential of obtaining a rapid solution is much larger. This is a good case against Proprietary technologies including software, formats and protocols. This does not indicate that one should always suspects what comes from a for-profit company. However, it does mean that one may have better odds of success in an event of trouble, with open technologies as compared with closed ones. The boundary between 'open' and 'proprietary' technologies sometimes is not a very clear one. For example the above mentioned XD picture card format is used exclusively by Olympus and FujiFilm companies, while CompactFlash is another commercial format used very much widely in the industry. In this case, the latter is more 'open' standard compared with the former. Therefore, all else being equal, Compactflash owner may have a larger pool of supporters compared with an owner of XD card.