Over the summer I decided to migrate my backups from rdiff-backup to borg, which offers some significant advantages, in particular de-duplication, but comes at a cost of complexity, and a corresponding sense of unease about how sound my backup strategy might be. I've now hit the Point Of No Return: my second external backup drive is overdue being synced with my NAS, which will delete the last copy of the older rdiff-backup backups.

Whilst I hesitate over this last action to commit to borg, something else happened. My wife wanted to put a copy of her iTunes music library on her new phone, and I couldn't find it: not only could I not find it on any of our computers, I also couldn't find a copy on the NAS, or in backups, or even in old DVD-Rs. This has further knocked my confidence in our family data management, and makes me even more nervous to commit to borg. I'm now wondering about stashing the contents of the second external backup disk on some cloud service as a fail-safe.

There was one known-good copy of Sarah's music: on her ancient iPod Nano. Apple have gone to varying lengths to prevent you from copying music from an iPod. When Music is copied to an iPod, the files are stripped of all their metadata (artist, title, album, etc.) and renamed to something non-identifying (e.g. F01/MNRL.m4a), and the metadata (and correlation to the obscure file name) is saved in separate database files. The partition of the flash drive containing all this is also marked as "hidden" to prevent it appearing on macOS and Windows systems. We are lucky that the iPod is so old, because Apple went even further in more recent models, adding a layer of encryption.

To get the music off the iPod, one has to undo all of these steps.

Luckily, other fine folks have worked out reversing all these steps and implemented it in software such as libgpod and its frontend, GtkPod, which is still currently available as a Debian package. It mostly worked, and I got back 95% of the tracks. (It would have been nice if GtkPod had reported the tracks it hadn't recovered, it was aware they existed based on the errors it did print. But you can't have everything.)

GtkPod is a quirky, erratic piece of software, that is only useful for old Apple equipment that is long out of production, prior to the introduction of the encryption. The upstream homepage is dead, and I suspect it is unmaintained. The Debian package is orphaned. It's been removed from testing, because it won't build with GCC 10. On the other hand, my experience shows that it worked, and was useful for a real problem that someone had today.

I'm in two minds about GtkPod's fate. On the one hand, I think Debian has far too many packages, with a corresponding burden of maintenance responsibility (for the whole project, not just the individual package maintainers), and there's a quality problem: once upon a time, if software had been packaged in a distribution like Debian, that was a mark of quality, a vote of confidence, and you could have some hope that the software would work and integrate well with the rest of the system. That is no longer true, and hasn't been in my experience for many years. If we were more discerning about what software we included in the distribution, and what we kept, perhaps we could be a leaner distribution, faster to adapt to the changing needs in the world, and of a higher quality.

On the other hand, this story about GtkPod is just one of many similar stories. Real problems have been solved in open source software, and computing historians, vintage computer enthusiasts, researchers etc. can still benefit from that software long into the future. Throwing out all this stuff in the name of "progress", could be misguided. I'm especially sad when I see the glee which people have expressed when ditching libraries like Qt4 from the archive. Some software will not be ported on to Qt5 (or Gtk3, Qt6, Gtk4, Qt7, etc., in perpetuity). Such software might be all of: unmaintained, "finished", and useful for some purpose (however niche), all at the same time.