Building a better DVD

New, “blue” laser technology is magnifying optical storage, and spurring competition. Possible: The Lord of the Rings trilogy on a single disc.

A refined laser technology is giving optical storage an edge in the data space race, and two products – each with big-brand supporters – are vying to dominate the market.

When 4.7 gigabyte DVD-ROM storage technology was released in 1996, it opened up a new world to the typical computer user, who was then making due with 1.4 megabyte floppy disks and 2 gigabyte hard drives. Even gearheads who were using CD-ROMs were limited to 650 megabytes.

Few milestones have followed DVD storage’s big debut, however – until now.

In late February, Hitachi unveiled its 10K300, the first 300-gigabyte magnetic hard disk drive. Comparatively, the highest-end re-writable magneto optical (MO) storage DVDs are maxed out with less than 9 gigabytes of storage capability. The floppy disk is getting swiftly replaced by CDs and portable flash memory smart cards, and is on its way to join the 8-track tape in history’s tech dustbin.

DVDs have labored under several limitations. They can only hold about 240 minutes of video, so popular movies like the lengthy Lord of the Rings have to be split among multiple discs. Worse, TV programs are migrating to the high-definition format – its demands, including boosted clarity and color, quickly max out conventional storage. “Once you want to write high-definition TV on an optical disk, you need more storage capacity, simply because you have more information available,” says Jean Schleipen, principal scientist at Philips Electronics.

Enter the blue laser. The five-year-old technology has been recently refined, and is helping MO play catch up with magnetic hard disk storage. To compare, the red laser used in CD and DVD technology is like writing in crayon; the blue laser is like a ballpoint pen. The finer tip allows the user to fit more information in the same space. MO blue laser DVDs hold about 27 gigabytes of storage, allowing each disc to record more than 13 hours of standard TV video or two hours of HDTV. Lord of the Rings – the trilogy – could fit on a single disc.

Two rivalsOptical storage hardware manufacturers agree that blue laser technology is the future of their industry – what they can’t agree on, however, is a standard. The discord is prompting a blue laser home video format battle reminiscent of the Beta vs. VHS war of the late 1970s. This time the two competitors are Blu-ray and HD-DVD, each with big-brand supporters.

In one corner: HD-DVD, from NEC and Toshiba. It can hold up to 20 gigabytes (about five movies) for a re-writable disc. Squarely targeting the home video market, HD-DVD is cheap to produce – about 10 percent higher than traditional DVDs – and is backwardly compatible with current red laser DVDs on the market.

Competing is Sony’s Blu-ray, backed by companies like Matsushita, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Philips Electronics. One big drawback, Blu-ray is four to five times more expensive to produce than red laser DVDs and it is not backwardly compatible with DVDs currently on the market. However, red laser compatibility is, reportedly, on the way and proponents say the technology is easier to use than HD-DVD. Even better, some versions of Blu-ray have 40 gigabyte rewritable discs – twice the storage of HD-DVD.

Giving Blu-ray an extra edge is the Ultra Density Optical system. Developed by U.K. storage device maker Plasmon, the new blue laser MO system, an extension of Blu-ray, could potentially hold up to 320 gigabytes per DVD disc – or, 150 hours of standard video storage.

Favoring cheaper production costs, movie studios, including Disney and Warner Brothers, are leaning toward HD-DVD (although Sony-owned Columbia Pictures is, of course, backing Blu-ray). The market is huge: In 2003, movie studios sold $22.2 billion in DVD and VHS video in the U.S., according to Sony figures. That’s more than twice last year’s total box office receipts.

Unlike HD-DVD, Blu-ray backers have two business models: high-end corporate storage and home entertainment. Blu-ray’s advanced cataloging efficiency allow for that versatility. Sony started shipping blue laser drives under the “Professional Disc for Data” moniker last November. The drives offer 23 gigabytes of storage per rewritable disc starting at $4,150. The highest-end product sells for about $19,000 for 1.6 terabytes of storage in a multi-drive rack-mountable device. Blu-ray is set to own the corporate storage market: HD-DVD is focusing on Hollywood.

Optical, not optimumWhen it comes to sheer storage muscle and data retrieval speed, optical DVD disk storage may never be able to compete toe-to-toe with hard drives. Advancements in nanotechnology and micro machine-abilities mean that traditional hard disks will soon surpass 400 gigabytes in storage, a milestone optical DVD storage has only accomplished in prototypes.

They also suffer for their youth. DVDs have only been around for about a decade – their plastics, metals, and adhesives are still relatively unproven. Flaws in the kindred, 20-year-old CD technology raise some red flags. “CD bronzing,” describes the degradation of the inner metal membrane; “CD rot,” is when a geotrichum fungus infects CDs in hot and humid climates (Spain’s National Center for Biotechnology is an authority on the condition).

Yet optical storage is far from the also-ran. Comparatively, DVD storage is a more permanent, and rugged, medium. With Sarbanes-Oxley legislation requiring scrupulous, long-term, record keeping in corporations, executives want a platform they can trust. Removable blue laser DVDs, unlike hard drives, have no finicky moving or electronic parts. DVDs can withstand moisture and extreme temperature exposure that would cripple a hard drive and all of its stored data. They can sit on shelves for years without risking rust or dust damage.

Traditional hard drives use iron oxides, which pose the risk of accidentally degaussing, losing, or corrupting stored data by exposure to magnetic or strong electrical fields. University of California research shows the earth’s own magnetic fields can eventually destroy data on most long-term magnetic storage media.

In consumer electronics the two platforms are not competition, but complimentary. Companies like Korea’s LG Electronics are planning to market hard-drive-equipped digital video recorders with built-in Blu-ray DVD burners to HDTV owners.

Still limited, and a luxuryLike most cutting-edge technology, blue laser DVD player/recorders first appeared in Japan. Last April, blue laser debuted there with a price tag of about $4,000. Japan consumers are less price conscious than Americans, and demand is higher for the larger storage capacity of blue laser DVDs, partly because HDTV has a wider availability there, according to Sony spokesperson Mack Araki. He says the first consumer Blu-ray products won’t hit North America until 2005. Re-writable blue laser DVDs incorporated within set-top digital video recorders (DVRs) will, he adds, eventually replace the VHS tape recorder. He predicts that over the next few years more homes will adopt re-writable blue laser storage to replace their VCRs – discs do not need rewinding, take up less space, and hold much more video than cassette tapes. Like most consumer products, Mr. Araki says, as production increases, Blu-ray DVD player/recorder prices are expected to drop to more appetizing levels.

Even then, blue laser DVD players and recorders may stay luxury items for the next few years, instead of a necessity. Says In-Stat/MDR senior analyst Michelle Abraham, “They will become mainstream products eventually, but not before 2008.”

For: Red Herring