Color me Blue (or Blu)

What's holding up the arrival of blue lasers to the optical-storage market? Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern blames delays to this excellent technology on competing consortia with clashing agendas.

To outsiders, the storage industry appears to be a highly rational business where products follow a natural and logical order of progression. The truth is a different story. Several recent announcements in the blue-laser arena had me scratching my head and thinking of the Wild West.

Blue lasers, or blue-violet lasers, have been the holy grail of optical storage for years. The blue laser light offers a shorter wavelength (in the 400-nanometer range) than the red (around 650 nm) or infrared laser (780 nm) technologies used in DVD and CD mechanisms, respectively. The shorter the wavelength of light, the smaller the area needed to store data on the disc.

More, better, faster—a very good thing, no doubt. So whats my beef? Let me count the ways:

  • This week in Japan, Sony will reportedly release a blue-laser consumer video recorder supporting the Blu-ray standard. This format is promoted by a large consortium of companies including Hitachi, Matsushita, Philips and Samsung. The drive will use discs holding around 25GB and cost $3,815.
  • Meanwhile, at this weeks Association of Information and Image Management conference in New York, Sony announced a blue laser drive aimed at archival storage. Each disc holds 23GB and comes in a hard plastic cover. The company said it will offer a branded drive by the end of the year, and third parties will have the internal version this summer with an OEM sticker of $3,000.

    However, this drive and media arent compatible with the Blu-ray format. Data-transfer rate is the primary difference between the formats. Blu-ray records data at 36 Mbps, which happens to be the data-transfer rate of high-definition television. On the other hand, the new data drive records at the faster 9MB per second and also sports an Ultra 160 SCSI interface.

  • Just as incompatible is the competing blue-laser standard dubbed Advanced Optical Disc, which is offered by NEC and Toshiba. The AOD media will hold up to 30GB, and the first drives are due to ship by the end of the year. Last weekend, reports from Japan suggested that the stock of the two companies might rise on news that the DVD Forum was expected to approve the AOD standard.
  • Finally, according to a report in the Electronic Engineering Times, a large consortium of storage manufacturers and media suppliers in Taiwan recently unveiled two new high-definition DVD formats for blue laser players. Called the Blue-HD-DVD-1 and Blue-HD-DVD-2 (catchy monikers!), the discs will provide capacities of 17GB and 27GB, respectively.

    Is there any surprise that these drives will employ a proprietary compression method as well as different error-correction code and file formats than any of the standards mentioned above? The purpose of the formats is to invent intellectual property and create a homegrown revenue stream. And the consortium figures that by selling to neighbor China, it will have the mass shipments to create a de facto standard outside the current association—one that isnt bound by patents held by foreign companies.

Is my outrage driven by all the different competing formats? A bit. But thats business as usual in the optical storage arena.

Instead, my ire is piqued by a "consumer product" that costs $3,800. Come on. Who are these consumers, anyway? Perhaps the same demographic who consider a 50-inch plasma television cheap at $9,999.

What we need is a new market segment for HDTV devices, one that avoids the word "consumer" until list prices fall well below $1,000.

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.