[T]he ability to use RAW files is perhaps the greatest asset of digital photography....Under some circumstances the JPEG files produced by cameras can be almost as good, but only if the exposure and white balance are set perfectly at the moment the photograph is taken. When making prints, especially large ones, it is always possible to exceed the quality of the equivalent JPEG file when working with RAW files.
Did you know your RAW format digital image files may be unreadable ten years from now? Because they are not constructed according to any standard, and because computer technology and operating systems change at an incredibly rapid rate, in the future it may be impossible to find a computer, operating system, and RAW file conversion software that will all work together with the RAW files you make today.
Currently, nearly every digital camera make and model produces RAW files in its own unique format. There are no standards. This means software specific to a camera's make and model is required to convert that camera’s RAW files into something more useful like TIFF or JPEG files.
There are now more than 50 different RAW formats, with a new one introduced nearly every time Canon, Kodak, Konica, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, or any other manufacturer introduces a new digital camera model. In ten more years there could be hundreds, if not thousands, of different RAW formats. The myriad of unique RAW formats is a very serious threat to the long term usefulness of every photographer's RAW files.
Unlike other file types, RAW files contain pieces of information that relate directly to each photosite (pixel) on your camera's image sensor. These pieces of information must be processed according to how the image sensor is constructed physically and electronically. Since each new digital camera usually contains an image sensor different than the one in its predecessor or even other models from the same manufacturer, the RAW files it produces are also different.
I am confident that RAW file standards will emerge, but this may not happen in time to save the RAW files we create today. In spite of what you may have heard, digital photography is still in its infancy. It is about where 35mm photography was before film makers decided how far apart the sprocket holes should be. We still have a long way to go before we can count on our RAW files lasting as long as our old color slides.