4. Obsolescence of formats

No format, whether carrier-based or file-based, will be playable forever, and for some the end is in sight. Since the 1990s there has been a clear shift away from carrier-based formats that store content in a manner specific to a particular physical medium, towards file formats, storing content as data in a computer environment. This market-driven obsolescence of formats obliges us to acknowledge that the window of opportunity for digitally preserving carrier-based content is finite. Beyond a certain point, the maintenance of obsolete replay systems will become unaffordable, and so our access to content held on certain media will cease.

The actual time available in which to digitally reformat carrier-based content may be extended somewhat, through careful stockpiling of equipment, spare parts, service manuals and other accessories that have been or shortly will be discontinued, and through the careful retention of maintenance and operational skills. It will also vary according to format, but ultimately it is finite. As of 2016, it is widely accepted within the global audiovisual archival community that we have between 10 and 15 years in which to digitally preserve all carrierbased audiovisual content held on magnetic media. Indeed, for some magnetic-based formats such as MII video, retrieval of the content is already practically impossible. Therefore, by around 2030, digitisation of even the most common magnetic media may be beyond the reach of most archives. For other formats the timescale may be longer or shorter.

For file-based content, obsolescence of the physical carrier format, the operating system or specific coding or file wrapper formats may endanger either the bits themselves or the ability to meaningfully interpret the bits. However, the fact that these problems are common to all modern industry makes them easier to manage than individual legacy audiovisual formats driven by specialist consumer markets.