From Tape Drives to Memory Orbs, the Data Formats of Star Wars Suck (Spoilers)
Star Wars should just be called Disk Format Wars.
Can R2 read a Zip disk? Image: Star Wars
Rogue One is a great addition to the Star Wars universe because it takes a glaringly stupid plot mechanism—the exhaust port vulnerability in the Death Star—and attributes it to an architect's sabotage. One of the dumbest things about the Star Wars franchise then becomes something sad, poignant, and believable.
But Rogue One also raises new questions about its fictional world. Some really burning, important questions.
Like, what's the deal with the disk formats of the Star Wars universe?
Upon reviewing the Star Wars canon of movies (no animated films or shows, and no Expanded Universe content, which now exists in a purgatory of maybe-canon), it's become clear to me that that the galaxy is crippled by an abundance of disk formats, with all of the accompanying interoperability issues that we see on our own planet. Every time the Rebel Alliance changes bases, they must be lugging around a spaceship full of drives, both new and obsolete, to read every possible format.
Imagine that you're an anti-fascist spy who shows up to headquarters with stolen information on a Minidisc. How many times has this scenario played out for the Rebel Alliance, offscreen?
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The bewildering array of disk formats clearly confuses consumers in the Star Wars universe. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker, who is tech-savvy enough to be trusted to help purchase a droid and then clean it up, seems to be stumped by the disk drive on R2-D2. "You've got something jammed in here real good," he says to R2-D2, as though he doesn't know it's a disk. If it's a disk drive, wouldn't it obviously be a disk, and wouldn't he know to push a button to eject it?
The plethora of non-interoperable data storage formats just gets weirder when you take in other information about the IT in this universe. Data access ports remain consistent across films—R2-D2 is able to access databases through similar ports from Episode II all the way to Episode V. (More on that later in this post). But that just raises another question: why is there any interoperability across enemy lines?
The North Korean operating system Red Star OS, for instance, won't open files that aren't sanctioned by the North Korean government. The North Korean Woolim tablet is the same. Plus WiFi capability has been removed from its motherboard. While the Woolim tablet does have a micro USB port, the tablet is manufactured by a Chinese company. If North Korea had the same capacities as the Star Wars Galactic Empire, it doesn't take a lot to imagine that they would make non-interoperable hardware and try to eliminate formats used by other countries.
But let's get back to Rogue One, specifically.
The climax of Rogue One takes place inside an incredibly poorly-designed Imperial archive.
The Scarif facility, which stores hard disk backups of Imperial files, is a good idea in practice. Keeping stuff in the cloud is a recipe for disaster. Without dedicated backups in cold storage, key information could become lost. (Not that archives seem to help the Empire very much, as they never really seem to learn from their mistakes: See, for example, the second Death Star, which still manages to have the exact same vulnerability.)
But in a world of spaceships and laser swords, retrieval of those files involves a giant claw machine picking out data tapes from a very big shelf.
The information appears to be solely contained on a single data tape that, in order to be transmitted, has to be taken up to a giant antenna on the roof of the building. There are no terminals where they can just access the data.
The antenna thing is ridiculous, but that's an entire blog post on its own. Let's focus on the data tape for now.
A data tape.
In Episode IV, which is supposed to immediately chronologically follow the events of Rogue One, an imperial officer refers to the stolen information as "data tapes."
This might just be an inevitable anachronism from a sci-fi movie made in 1977, but given Rogue One's overachieving attempts at continuity between it and A New Hope—right down to CGI Leia and CGI Tarkin—the data storage depicted in the newest Star Wars film is probably a deliberate decision based on this stray bit of dialogue.
Of course, by the time Vader is searching for stolen plans in Episode IV, they're no longer on a magnetic tape disk. They've been transmitted via giant plot device antenna to the Rebel flagship Profundity, which then copies it over onto ONE SINGLE LITTLE HARD COPY that looks like this:
A small group of soldiers escapes from Profundity and brings the disk to Leia on Tantive IV, where she is arrested in the opening scenes of A New Hope. The disk and R2-D2 escape Tantive IV via escape pod, and the rest is, well, you know.
But the creation of the disk just brings up more questions.
Why didn't the Rebels make more copies?
Seriously, could it kill them to make one more disk? Seems a little risky to go running around with a SINGLE COPY of the plans that can save the galaxy. Isn't anyone worried they're going to run into a stormtrooper with a giant magnet?
Why on earth is the file size of the plans so large?
A key plot point in Rogue One is that the file size is so large that they need to commandeer a giant antenna and knock out a planetary shield in order to upload the files. But for some reason they can send regular communications just fine without doing either of those things?
What on earth is being stored on that magnetic tape cassette? Is it 5000 .bmp images loaded into slides in Powerpoint with accompanying animations? Why is DEATH_STAR_final_final__FINAL.dwg.doc.gif.pdf so big?
If the same files can be stored both on a paper-thin disk about the size of Leia's palm, why is the Empire storing thousands of similar files on magnetic tape?
And why is it that Jyn has to go up to the roof in order to transmit the data? Why can't she use a computer somewhere else in the building. Indeed, the claw-machine-data-retrieval room doesn't feature any terminals where Jyn and Cassian could view the tape and copy it onto a more portable format, rather than stealing the Empire's master copy. While this certainly has the effect of making espionage more difficult, the drawbacks to legitimate use of the archive seem to outweigh that.
Besides, the data doesn't appear to be encrypted at all. A thumbnail preview of the plans shows up on the computer aboard Profundity. It's the same image that shows up when R2-D2 hands the plans over to the Rebel Alliance in Episode IV.
Digital preservation expert Jon Tilbury, who notes many of the flaws with the Scarif archival facility, suggests that the Empire was building off a sloppy Old Republic legacy system. In Episode II: Attack of Clones, part of the Old Republic's archive gets wiped by a malicious Jedi trying to cover his tracks, and no one notices for a decade.
But legacy systems can't explain the Scarif facility, which doesn't resemble the Old Republic's archive in Episode II. Scarif uses a file format never seen in the rest of the films.
The hard copies of the Old Republic's archives appear to be some kind of blue glowing cassette that can be stored on shelves. Like library books, but cyber. (This is probably the exact sentence George Lucas uttered when directing the art for this scene.) The archives also feature a number of terminals where visitors can look up information in the Republic's databases.
Obi-Wan then has the option of easily copying over the information he accesses onto a glowing marble to show to a group of Yoda's Jedi kindergarteners. No claw machines. No antennae.
What, pray tell, happens to these technologies between Episode III and Rogue One?
"But Sarah," you might say, "surely there's a difference between a restricted military archive and the Republic archive in Episode II." Are you trying to tell me that Obi-Wan, a leading member of a mystical paramilitary law enforcement organization, just flounces off to the public library while investigating an assassination attempt made on a sitting Senator? Doubtful. And don't try to tell me he doesn't have the security clearances to access a top secret archive similar to the Scarif facility. The Episode II archive is totally a CIA library, and while it is apparently run by a bunch of bozos who can't stop one lone Jedi from deleting an entire star system from its records, it makes the Scarif facility in comparison look like a deserted Blockbuster Video in the year 2016.
Why must the Death Star plans be stored on a data tape the size of four iPads stacked on top each other? Obi-Wan can carry a map of the entire galaxy in a glowing marble, and at the end of Episode II, Count Dooku absconds with a thumb drive or something that contains the Death Star plans.
"Maybe the Death Star plans in Episode II are still rudimentary and require less disk space," you might say, except that the plans in Rogue One and A New Hope are a goddamn animated dot matrix.
Data storage resembling the Scarif magnetic tapes never appears again in the Star Wars chronology. Republic-era storage appears to be smaller and lighter than Imperial- and post-Imperial-era storage, but even the storage formats in Episodes IV-VII tend to be more portable, with the exception of a giant ice cream machine-shaped "data core" seen in the evacuation of Bespin in Episode V that may or may not be canon.
By The Force Awakens, data is again transported via something like a thumb drive.
The Star Wars universe clearly struggles with a multitude of data storage formats, and likely with the accompanying interoperability issues as well. But weirdly enough, data access ports remain standardized through three generations. R2-D2, a droid first found on a Naboo cruiser in Episode I, manages to use the same kind of port to infiltrate systems on a backwater Separatist base in Episode II...
...a Separatist flagship in Episode III...
...a state-of-the-art Imperial battle station in Episode IV...
… and a civilian mining facility in Episode V.
In Rogue One, a reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO hijacks one of his model brethren, and accesses the exact same kind of port in the back of the droid's head.
Why on Earth are ports standardized but data storage isn't? Why are data storage formats wildly variable, but file formats are readable across enemy lines? Why is it that I have to carry five dongles so my Macbook can play a PowerPoint presentation but a decades-old Rebel droid needs zero to stay interoperable with an enemy's state-of-the-art battle station?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I at least have a theory about why the Empire keeps its backups on magnetic tape.
You see, the Scarif facility is just too badly designed for it all to be a coincidence. It doesn't appear to be patterned after Old Republic systems. The tape format never appears again in the movies. The incredibly large files contained on the tape can be stored on palm-sized, paper-thin disks, meaning the tapes are unnecessary. The claw-machine system makes no sense. The antenna tower makes the Scarif facility easy to target in a military attack.
In other words, the archival system on Scarif appears to be designed in a deliberate act of sabotage by anti-Imperial archivists attempting to undermine Palpatine's rule. Like Galen Erso, the archivists chose to remain embedded inside the Empire, and as their act of resistance, build the most useless, asinine archival system the galaxy had ever seen.
As part of their plan, they adopted a magnetic tape format, to maximize the size of the facility and make it necessary to manufacture massive amounts of interoperable technology to support the tapes. Given that the tapes are never seen before or after Rogue One, it may be that the archivists developed the tape format using military funding, in hopes that diverting money away from weapons and into a bad R&D project would, in the grand scheme of things, save lives.
This is absolutely the only rational explanation for the data storage formats depicted in Rogue One, and I look forward to seeing the prequel about the heroic rebel archivists.
Correction: This article originally referred to North Korea's Woolim tablet as the "Red Star Android tablet." We've since updated the article to correct the reference, and regret the error.
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