bit rot

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bit rot

(jargon)
A hypothetical disease the existence of which has been deduced from the observation that unused programs or features will often stop working after sufficient time has passed, even if "nothing has changed". The theory explains that bits decay as if they were radioactive. As time passes, the contents of a file or the code in a program will become increasingly garbled.

People with a physics background tend to prefer the variant "bit decay" for the analogy with particle decay.

There actually are physical processes that produce such effects (alpha particles generated by trace radionuclides in ceramic chip packages, for example, can change the contents of a computer memory unpredictably, and various kinds of subtle media failures can corrupt files in mass storage), but they are quite rare (and computers are built with error detection circuitry to compensate for them). The notion long favoured among hackers that cosmic rays are among the causes of such events turns out to be a myth.

Bit rot is the notional cause of software rot.

See also computron, quantum bogodynamics.

bit rot

Bit rot, also called "format rot," is the inability to access digital data because the file format is obsolete and compatible applications no longer exist to read it. Digital files placed in archival storage are expected to last indefinitely and might not be retrieved until years later. Information saved on obsolete removable media is problematic. Magnetic tape drives are not available for all the myriad formats of the past. In addition, computers no longer come with floppy drives. However, as of 2018, inexpensive floppy drives are available that can be plugged into a PC via the USB port.

The Solution to Digital File Rot
One way to prevent archival bit rot is to be aware of format changes. Whenever a file format has been updated, the application that reads them will also be updated. Within a few years, users should open important documents and save them in the new format. For example, the original .DOC file format created by Microsoft Word in the 1980s became a legacy format after the new .DOCX format debuted in 2007. Because billions of .DOC files exist in the world, Microsoft has continued to support the old format in all subsequent versions of Word, at least for now. However, lesser known products may not provide such extended support. Fortunately, major format changes do not occur frequently. See data rot and software rot.
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