Bringing Optical Storage Into Focus

CD technology is a commodity product. Magneto-optic is stable, but confined to niche markets. The battle is on as DVD technology tries to become the next dominant optical storage technology.

Ask people in your local shopping mall how optical storage has affected their lives. The majority will probably ignore your very existence and walk right by. The people who actually stop will likely give you a perplexed look and then slowly walk away without answering. While the average consumer doesn't know it, optical storage has become a part of everyday life. CDs are the most common form of optical storage that people encounter. Except for the hard-core vinyl fans, consumers prefer their music on CD. Consumers' PCs at home or work will also invariably have some type of CD drive.

CDs are everywhere, but they are hardly the only form of optical storage available to users. DVDs, which are identical in appearance to CDs, offer at least seven times the storage. The higher capacity of DVDs makes them ideal for full-length movies, video storage, and large archival applications. Optical storage also includes magneto-optic (MO) media, which features higher storage capacities than the typical single-sided DVD and also allows users immediate access to data. Finally, some high-end applications use 12-inch and 14-inch optical media to store data.

There is no question that CD technology has been pervasive. And, DVD proponents expect their technology to eventually surpass the popularity of CD. MO will most likely remain a niche product for specific applications. In any case, optical storage has proven itself the most inexpensive and effective way to archive and distribute data. And, there is reason to believe this will continue as we enter the new millennium.

CD Technology: Optical Storage For The Masses
The adoption of CD technology seemed so orderly. Audio CDs first appeared on the market in 1983. Several years later, CD-ROM drives began to appear en masse on Desktop PCs. Almost simultaneously, software developers were porting their programs to CD-ROM disks. It took about three years for the CD-ROM drive install base to reach the ubiquitous point. With a CD-ROM drive on every desk, users could distribute data on the CD-ROMs they created with recently released CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives. The next step in the adoption of CD technology brings us to the present. Currently, users can purchase a CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) drive that not only reads CD-ROMs, but also offers rewrite and write-once recording.

In most cases, CD-R disks can be purchased for no more than two dollars. With a 650-MB capacity, CDs offer users optical storage at a cost of about 3 MBs per penny. At that cost, companies have loaded jukeboxes with CDs for a cost-effective method of nearline storage. "Companies are scanning canceled checks and phone bills and storing them on CD. The disks are then sent to their customers. This eliminates paper and associated costs," says Rich Gadomski, national marketing manager at Maxell Corporation of America.

Companies that have salespeople in the field also use inexpensive CDs to distribute data. "For some companies, product prices can change on a weekly basis. This information can be stored on CDs and sent out into the field where salespeople can access the information on their laptops," adds Gadomski. CDs are also an excellent method for storing archived documents that are not frequently accessed. These documents can include billing records, legal papers, or blueprints.

Demand For CD-RW Is On The Rise
Through the work of the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA), CD-RW has seen a dramatic increase in popularity. Founded in 1992, the non-profit organization promotes the use of writable optical products. OSTA's MultiRead Specification ensures that all types of CDs – no matter how they were created – can be read on current and future CD and DVD drives. As a result, current CD-RW drives offer write-once and rewrite capabilities. And, the disks created on CD-RW drives can be read on all CD and DVD drives. "OSTA created the MultiRead Specification because it felt that the existence of different forms of media could cause confusion. We wanted to make sure that everything was compatible," explains OSTA's Facilitator, Ray Freeman. "This way, consumers are not confused and they have investment protection." Freeman's Company, Freeman Associates, is engaged to run OSTA and is located in Santa Barbara, CA. OSTA is composed of hardware and software companies that work in the optical storage space. The association has 18 members and 50 associates.

CD-RW drives that adopt the MultiRead Specification are distinguished by three numbers that consumers should know. For example, this type of CD-RW drive may be labeled "4X 4X 20X." The first number is the CD-R writing speed. The second number is the CD-RW writing speed. The third number is the read speed of the drive. For most consumers, a MultiRead CD-RW drive will be sufficient. But, some users may prefer a CD-R drive. "CD-R drives have 8X record speeds, and CD-RW drives have 4X record speeds. If you are burning a lot of media, then you probably will use the faster recording drive (CD-R)," states Cheryl Bianchi, worldwide marketing manager, storage business, digital and applied imaging at Eastman Kodak. "An 8X CD-R will burn a disk in about nine minutes. A 4X CD-RW drive will take twice as long."

Sorting Through A Confusing DVD Market
Transitioning from CD to DVD technology is easy in a magazine article, but much more difficult in the real world. While CD technology followed an orderly progression, DVD has taken a more convoluted path. DVD-ROM drives are currently on the market, and DVD-ROM disks have a capacity of 4.7 GB. Now comes the tough part. DVD-R is a write-once format being developed by Pioneer. First-generation DVD-R drives cost $17,000, and second-generation drives are still a pricey $5,400. "The expense of DVD-R makes it a niche product for companies that publish software or videos," says Bianchi. "That's why the real battle is in rewritable DVD." And, the battle is on… sort of.

Rewritable DVD technology is currently only available in the form of DVD-RAM. The media has a 2.6 GB, single-sided capacity and is compatible with DVD-ROM drives. However, six major industry players (Sony, Ricoh, Hewlett-Packard, Philips, Mitsubishi Chemical, and Yamaha) have backed a rewritable DVD format called DVD+RW. There are currently no DVD+RW products available. To further muddy the waters, Pioneer has announced a rewritable DVD format tagged DVD-RW. Again, no DVD-RW products are currently available. "Users are confused. They don't know which formats will be compatible. So, they have decided to wait," relays OSTA's Freeman. Adds Michael Dudick, optical product marketing manager at Verbatim, "There has been a lot of hype surrounding the release of DVD-RAM, but there hasn't been a lot of sell through. There is a lot of confusion at the consumer level."

Confusion is the word that best describes the current rewritable DVD market. "Consumers should not abandon CD technology for current DVD technology," says Maxell's Gadomski. "Distributing data on DVD is difficult because there's not a large install base of DVD-ROM drives. There is a niche market (video and audio editing, for example) that requires a high-capacity media that is rugged and random access. These are the types of niche markets creating a demand for DVD-RAM technology."

Rewritable DVD Versus MO
The rewritable DVD battle will likely continue until all products are on the market and there is a large install base of DVD-ROM drives. "CD-R was accepted because users could store data and distribute the media easily to anyone with a CD-ROM drive. That dynamic doesn't exist with rewritable DVD at this point," explains Freeman of OSTA. "For rewritable DVD to be successful, the technology needs to prove itself valuable beyond the distribution of data."

Rewritable DVD is trying to accomplish that very goal. Proponents of the technology argue that the high storage capacity and rewritable nature of the media make it a suitable replacement for current tape storage. Today, rewritable DVD lacks the quick access that MO offers. However, some industry experts predict access times will improve, and rewritable DVD will eventually replace MO. "MO has carved itself a niche in markets such as transportation, utilities, and legal," says Dudick of Verbatim. "MO technology is expensive. But, if you need quick access to large amounts of storage, then you will be willing to pay for the technology." Rewritable DVD can offer the storage more economically; however, performance remains the biggest difference between the two media.

Protecting Your Current Investment
All experts agree that DVD will eventually sort itself out. Price points will decline, and DVD will replace CD as the optical storage media of choice. However, Eastman Kodak's Bianchi says that the confusion in the DVD market has probably added five to six years to the life span of CDs. "The rewritable DVD market will shake down to one format. The best technology might not be the one that becomes dominant. The determining factors will probably be compatibility and ease of use. It will be similar to the battle between VHS and Beta," comments Bianchi.

Promoting compatibility between optical media is where OSTA most often finds itself. For example, OSTA is proposing that all new writable DVD products be compatible with current DVD-ROM technology. This would guarantee investment protection and, thus, increase the install base of DVD-ROM drives. But, even Freeman admits that OSTA's mission is difficult because of the "immense political differences" that exist between companies. "OSTA is not in the business of inventing new technologies. We are trying to position optical technology in a way that will be most attractive to users and will make them want to buy the technology," states Freeman. "It's difficult to get all the vendors pointed in the same direction. We have to use moral suasion and stand on the high ground."

Freeman's title at OSTA could be president, but he prefers facilitator. "Facilitate means to make easier, and that is my main role," adds Freeman. From the looks of it, Freeman will have his hands full. Guiding the rewritable DVD market toward an accepted standard will be anything but easy.

Ed Hess