Face the Music: CDs Stink

 
 
By David Morgenstern  |  Posted 2003-03-03
 
 
 

The old saw tells us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Recently, weve seen one moldy technology—the floppy drive—finally begin to head out the door, still to the dismay of many. Now in the CD and DVD formats we can see the same market dynamic that kept the floppy firmly entrenched in our systems long after retirement time.

The greatest roadblock to change in any technology, especially hardware, is the current installed base of users. A change means more expense, more incompatibilities and extra support costs. The larger the number of users, the more difficult it becomes to establish a new technology. In the trade, this is called the tyranny of the installed base.

Take the floppy as an example. When the floppy was first released, it provided a complete solution for inexpensive PC storage. The transition from 5.25-inch to 3.5-inch media was tough for some customers, but quickly its benefits were accepted in the market. (Of course, it helped when the cost of media fell to reasonable levels. Believe it or not, a single 400KB diskette once cost about $10).

Over time, the floppy lost its selling points on the capacity and performance fronts. Actually, it was a long while ago, but as I mentioned in a recent column, no other removable format was able to overcome the floppys pull.

System vendors were loath to challenge the tyranny of the floppys immense installed base. It was (and still is) easier for vendors to keep the floppy going than to remove it from base-level systems. Dell only this month will start leaving the floppy off and then only for some of its models. Thats several years after Apple banned the floppy; its own smaller installed base of users left the Mac maker in a better position to lead the way (and the company had the additional incentive to eke out some cost savings in manufacturing).

We can also see this installed-base tyranny in action today with the various Compact Disc formats, especially when it comes to digital audio.

When CD-Audio was introduced, many hailed the format as a breakthrough. The disc was convenient and smaller than a record. And while the CDs sound was compressed and didnt offer the acoustical range of vinyl, the digital format held the appeal of consistency; it could be played perfectly, perhaps indefinitely, without the creeping degradation suffered by the earlier record media.

CDs optical technology was adapted to computers and is now standard equipment in the computer world and in consumer audio. It has grown in popularity through its writable and rewritable formats. Still, the technology is slow, and its capacity is limited for todays needs.

Sound familiar? If we look (and listen) hard enough, we can see that CDs actually produce mediocre sound and are mostly passé as a storage vehicle. Yet theyre everywhere. Its the tyranny of the installed base.

Another question occurs to me: Why do we still compare CD audio quality and performance to the older vinyl record format? Most users of digital audio only know records from DJ scratching. Certainly, after all this time we should be seeing acceptance of higher-definition audio storage formats. (And dont get me started on MP3 players — most of the time these files have been even more compressed. )

Several audiophile disc formats have been slugging away over the past few years: the DVD-Audio format, and Sonys and Philipss Super Audio CD (SACD). The DVD-Audio discs are incompatible with older DVD drives but have the potential to hold more data, facilitating higher sampling rates.

The Super Audio CD is multi-channel, and its hybrid media can be more compatible with current players, although such compatibility takes extra effort (i.e., expense) from manufacturers. Sony had offered SACD titles without the compatibility, however, the companys new disc pressing plant will produce only hybrid media according to Audiophile Audition.

At the same time, both of these formats in some way revolve around the now-20-year-old Compact Disc standard, either in physical form factor or in the requirement for compatibility. And theyre not making much headway. Like our experience with the floppy, the huge installed base of CD players and drives appears to be hindering the development of improved formats for computers and especially audio.

Perhaps its time for a completely different approach.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video. Hes currently the editor of the Storage Supersite.

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