SCMP Thursday, May 17, 2001

Digital downsizing


Remember the eight-track cartridge, that endless reel of tape that played about six songs and was de rigueur in any 1970s swinger's car? Or how about the vinyl LP, a large bendy piece of plastic that scratched whenever anything bigger than a breeze touched it and wore down with each successive play? And whatever happened to the DAT and the laser disc? Even the VCD, still popular in Hong Kong, is rapidly being overtaken by the DVD.
They have all either been dumped or are heading for the dustbin of technological progress. Don't imagine that the MiniDisc or CD will be saved from obsolescence, either - the enemy is creeping up fast.
So who is the enemy? A new data and music storage medium, the DataPlay disc, set to be rolled out in the winter; when it arrives, you can all but kiss goodbye to the humble CD. Eventually, anyway.
''I'm not sure you'll see the CD go just yet, but its days are numbered,'' says Ray Uhlir, a vice-president at DataPlay, the company in Boulder, Colorado, that has designed, patented and is about to roll out the minuscule discs. ''I think you can safely say that cassettes will be phased out and the MiniDisc's life is short, too.''
The DataPlay disc beats other media in practically all departments. For a start, its memory capacity is astounding. It holds about 500 megabytes of data: that's 300 times more than a floppy disk, five times as much as the Imation SuperDisk, twice as much as Zip disks and almost as much as a CD. You could fit three albums of MP3-standard music or an entire album of CD-quality music on to one, and as it's an optical disc, it does not scratch easily.
Above all, it beats them on size. Slightly larger than a $5 coin, it is half the size of an MD, and about 10cm smaller than a CD. It's so small that Uhlir says a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) - similar to PalmPilots and Handspring Visors - is already in the making that can play music and read data from the discs.
''We have condensed this technology to about as small as it can get,'' he says. ''The unit you need to read the disc is the size of a matchbox, which in itself is amazing. A DVD or CD unit has to be the size of the disc itself.''
In terms of flexibility, the DataPlay disc looks likely to wipe the floor with its competitors. As soon as they hit the market, the discs will be available in pre-recorded and recordable formats. Remember, the technology for recording on to CDs was jealously guarded for more than a decade after their launch over the kind of fears that produced the ''Home Recording is Killing Music'' campaign.
''We have the big record companies like BMG, EMI and the biggest, Universal, already with licences to put their content on to DataPlay discs,'' says Uhlir. ''When the blank discs hit the shelves, so too will all of the Billboard 100 albums on DataPlay.''
All recordable DataPlay discs are re-recordable, unlike CDs, where hi-fi-readable music can only be written on to CD-R format discs and only the CD-RW format discs can be re-recorded. Also, unlike most CDs and MDs, DataPlay will be able to carry a mix of formats - music, computer data or games - within its optical impressions, all readable by one unit.
''Toshiba, Samsung and other hardware manufacturers are all making units that can read the DataPlay disc. About 100 device makers are manufacturing stereo players, personal players and computer peripherals that can read the discs.''
The disc's killer blow, however, is likely to be delivered where CDs have no guard - on their price tags. One disc will cost about US$10 (HK$78), whether it contains music or not. CDs have been kept at a high price through licensing and patent agreements that their inventors established to maintain their hold on the market. Since their introduction, the inflated prices of CDs have been the subject of scrutiny. In Europe the cases drag on where record companies have been accused of price-fixing.
In much the same way, solid-state flash memory portable media, which you can find in products like memory sticks and PC cards, are kept at an artificially high price to allow the developers to recoup their research costs. If solid-state technology could be brought down in price, many observers believe it could supplant the CD as the major form of data or music media as it, too, is miniaturised and needs no moving parts or special devices to enable it to be read. At the moment, 500 megabytes of solid-state memory costs in the region of US$1,000.
''We already have the economies of scale. We like to see ourselves as being complementary to other media. Certain applications will always use the other media, but we see ourselves as penetrating their markets very quickly. It will be very hard for them to compete,'' says Uhlir.
Industry watchers in the US have not shown the DataPlay the usual scepticism that greets such claims, although they have pointed to the system's lack of compatibility with other systems as a weakness: whereas CDs, DVDs and VCDs can be read on the same unit, the DataPlay disc can only be read on DataPlay readers.
Researchers at Forrester, the technology industry analysts, believe DataPlay discs will further segregate an already divided market. ''Clearly one, maybe two formats will have to remain, but right now it's hard to say which is going to be the right format,'' Forrester senior analyst Bruce Kasrel told the New York Times. ''Eventually one will bubble up that will have the price, performance and licensing strategy that can get them in all kinds of devices.''
Uhlir believes DataPlay will succeed because of its flexibility across formats, enabling the company to mine the rich seams of both the computer data and music media markets. ''Each year, the average music buyer will purchase 70 to 80 CDs - that's 3.3 billion CD-R discs sold each year. It's an enormous market.''
Spending It is edited by Tinja Tsang ( ).