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CD-ROM and competing technology: competitors such as CD-R, CD-E, MD, PD, and HD are ready to slug it out.

It took a couple of years for CD-ROM to become a household term and a taken-for-granted component of practically every computer that ships. There are about 70 million CD-ROM drives in use today, according to industry watchers. However, other technologies and media, being developed to compete with CD-ROM, are hoping to become the preferred alternative for the storage and/or distribution of large volumes of information.

The two functions--recording data for storage by the end user and distributing stored and unerasable data--are so distinct that it would not be appropriate to gauge CD-ROM's competitors without looking first at the new incarnation of CD technology, the CD-Recordable drives and media. After all, most of the potentially competing solutions have data recording capabilities. CD-ROM has been criticized from day one because the discs cannot be used for storing your own data. This is like criticizing books because you can't use them as scrapbooks. Nevertheless, using the capacity of a CD-ROM for storing data by the end user is attractive.

CD-Recordable (CD-R) Technology

CD-Recordable drives have been available since 1991, but at a prohibitive price of about $20,000. While the price has been going down slowly over the past five years, the real breakthrough comes this year, when the hardware and software for compact disc recording becomes widely available for less than $1,000. Hewlett-Packard broke the record with its internal SureStore CD-Writer drive, available last November from some computer stores and mail-order companies for $999, lock, stock, and barrel, including software, controller card, cable, and two blank recordable CDs. On the heels of HP comes Pinnacle Micro with a competitive offer. By the end of the first quarter of 1996, Ricoh is to ship its RS 1060C. Yamaha entered the field with a powerful 4x recorder in 1995, but the price was steep for the advantage of the reduction in recording time. TEAC's CD-R50S, at $1,300, with quad-speed recording and writing capabilities, may be the price/performance winner when it delivers, and it will drive down the prices of the competition such as the quad-speed Pioneer DW-S114X that sells (or rather is supposed to sell) for $3,300.

These recordable drives differ not only in price and performance but also in the scope of software bundled with them. (The differences in recording software will be discussed in a later column.) The transfer rate (300-600 KB/sec) and the access time (200-350 ms) of these drives are an order of magnitude behind some of the optical alternatives discussed below, but they have two significant advantages. One is that the per-megabyte cost of the typical blank medium ($10) is less than 2 cents. The other is that there are tens of millions of users who have CD-ROM drives that can read such discs. No other alternatives come close to the distribution potential of CD-ROM. For storage and backup purposes, the CD-R drives and media may seem to be underdogs to other magnetic and optical alternatives, but with the plummeting price of the CD-R drives and the 650-MB capacity of the discs, this is less and less true. The lack of erasability may be advantageous in applications where non-erasability is crucial (banking, archival files), and erasable compact discs may come by late 1996.

Compact Disc Erasable (CD-E)

CD-Erasable technology may be imminent, but at this time it is hard to predict its role in the competition without knowing the price of the drive. The erasable media is guesstimated to be around $22 to $25. Ricoh is likely to be the first to ship a CD-E drive. Its recent press release claims that "it has become possible to use the current CD-Recordable drive circuit for CD-E with a minimum of modification." That may be so, but the company did nothing more at COMDEX than show a CD-R drive with a CD-E label on it. This suggests to me that not even the prototype stage has been reached. Ricoh claims that CD-E discs can also be read by CD-ROM players with minor modifications. I feel that unless these modifications can be done by the users of existing CD-ROM readers through new device drivers, the potential user base for distributing files on the CD-E medium will be limited. For local storage purposes, CD-E technology could be useful, but by the time it gets to the production stage, the market niche for large-capacity removable storage devices may be filled by removable magnetic disc (MD) and phase-change dual (PD) technology.

Removable Magnetic Disc (MD)

The undisputed success story of 1995 in storage technology was the introduction of the removable ZIP drives from Iomega. Even a year after its launch, it was still so popular that there was a three-to four-week backlog on orders placed at Christmas. This small, lightweight $200 drive became an overnight success as people who had outgrown their hard disk capacity rushed to buy this external drive available both in a SCSI and in a parallel port version (both, annoyingly, with a bulky power adapter).

The magnetic disc cartridges come in two versions (25 MB and 100 MB), at $10 and $20, respectively. The SCSI version has a 1 MB/second transfer rate (roughly the equivalent of the latest 6x CD-ROM drives), and a 30-ms average access time--not as good as current hard drives, but five times as fast as the best CD-ROM drives. The transfer rate of the parallel port version is limited to 300 KB/second, assuming that the PC has an enhanced parallel port. It is ideal for backup and archival purposes, and the 20-cent-per-MB cost is better than the average 23 to 25 cents per MB for the currently available hard disks. A newer version, called JAZ, offers 1-GB-capacity hard disk cartridges for $99 (10 cents per MB), and the drive for $500 (including a cartridge).

Although 1 million ZIP drives were sold in 10 months, it is still a far less ubiquitous storage technology than CD-ROM. On the other hand, the write and rewrite capability combined with removability at this price can't be beat. For portability and installation convenience, the parallel port version is comparable to 2x CD-ROM readers with parallel port or PC Card capability.

SyQuest, which has been in the removable hard disk and optical disc business for many years, came out with a similar device, the EZ135. While it has an even faster transfer rate (in the SCSI version) of 2 MB/second, a lightning-fast access time of 13.5 ms, and a 135-MB-capacity cartridge, the drive itself is $240, and--according to reviewers--somewhat clumsy. Its big advantage is that it is readily available at most computer shops.

Phase-Change Dual (PD)

This technology (which refers to the fact that the laser changes the spots on the media from an amorphous state to a crystal state and back again for writing and rewriting) is not new, but is more reliable and less expensive than in previous models. And even more important, it is now combined with the capability to read standard CD-ROM discs. There are five almost identical brands (Plasmon, Panasonic, Toray, Dynatek, TransCD/PD), using the same underlying technology licensed from Matsushita. The difference is mostly in the price of the media ($50-$64 for a 650-MB-capacity cartridge), and the drive construction (internal versus external, priced between $750 and $1,000). All have an average access time of 165 ms reading the optical disc cartridge, and 195 ms reading the CD-ROM. The transfer rate is 1.14 MB/second and 600 KB/second, respectively. To the operating system, the single drive appears as two distinct drives with different drive letters, but the user merely has to toss a cartridge or a CD-ROM disc onto the loading tray and the drive will automatically recognize which way to behave. The optical cartridges can't be read on plain CD-ROM drives, of course. While it is convenient to have one drive wear two hats, if something goes wrong with the drive you have neither function.

High-Density (HD) Technology

High density is a relative concept, but this is the term to identify the common format that the two competing groups, led by Toshiba/Time-Warner (Super Density--SD--Alliance) and Philips/Sony (Multimedia CD--MMCD--Group), finally agreed upon last October after several months of fierce lobbying and campaigning. Indirect but quite positive proof of the seriousness of the agreement was the fact that at its COMDEX press conference, Philips used a Time-Warner movie for demonstration, then the two parties made a joint announcement.

The term hyperdensity might have been a better choice, as even the lowest capacity version of HD will offer 4.7 GB, partly due to the much denser recording of data. The dual-layer version will offer 9 GB. The former is enough to hold a broadcast-quality movie of up to 135 minutes playing time (representing 95 percent of feature films), including Dolby-quality sound, with additional files for two to three dubbed and four to five subtitled versions. The size, thickness, weight, and the look and feel of the high-density discs will be the same as those of the current CD-ROM discs, but they won't be readable on current CD-ROM players. There was no hint as to the price of upcoming HD players, which will be backward-compatible, i.e., capable of reading the CD-ROM discs that are used today. I'm skeptical of backward compatibility without any additional piece of hardware, but I hope I'll be proven wrong.

This format may help to lure in not only the movie industry (undoubtedly the most important mover and shaker for the high-density format), but also publishers of CD-ROM megafiles (MEDLINE, CDMARC Bibliographic, ABI/INFORM full text) now distributed on seven to 10 CD-ROM discs, and developers of multimedia titles who currently use even low-quality video frugally owing to the lack of space on today's 650-MB CD-ROM discs. Don't hold your breath, however. I don't think that we shall see many new HD-ROM players and digital videodiscs sold in 1996. Database publishers will consider using this technology only when there is a sizable market. It may take two or three years before HD players are owned in sufficient numbers to justify the development of an encyclopedia in high-density format. Although no prices were announced, I think by 1997 the price will be around $700 to $750 for the simplest HD drive.

CD-ROM Is Here to Stay

While many of the above technologies are impressive and alleviate one or more problems that users of personal computers face today, none of them poses an immediate threat to the time-honored, essential function of CD-ROM: mass distribution of hundreds of megabytes of data on discs whose replication cost will go below $1 in 1996. It is also worth noting that CD-ROM drives keep improving. Further cutting the price of CD-recorder/player combos adds a new dimension to CD-ROM usage. Beyond this and functional enhancements such as the faster access times, increased transfer rate, and improved convenience features discussed in my previous column, there are other innovations and products (such as capaCd and Spira) to keep CD-ROM technology alive and kicking--and to keep me writing about it.
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Author:Jacso, Peter
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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