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Double Your Pleasure?

The next generation of rewritable CD-RW is apparently going to be 1.3GB--a doubling of today's capacity--and faster-than-ever rewrites, Sony and Philips have said so and, since they're the primary license-holders and the developers of CD-RW in the first place, they are probably right. The impact on CD-ROM drives and on DVD recordable drives, however, is still a question mark.

"Over the next few years, you're going to see read-only CD drives replaced by read/write versions," Bob Dickinson told me. "We believe"--"we" being Cirrus Logic Inc., where he's VP and GM of the optical storage division--"that CD-ROM shipments peaked last year and will decline in 2000."

For that news, he pointed to Wolfgang Schlicting's research at IDC: CD-ROM shipments approached an alltime high of almost 28 million in the last quarter of 1999, but are projected to fall below 24 million by the end of this year. (This in a market that has risen incrementally for years and has not exhibited cyclicality.) By contrast, shipments of rewritable CD-RW have doubled recently. A much smaller market in absolute numbers, they, nonetheless, went from 1.62 million to 4.64 million in the year between Q498 and Q499 and Schlicting predicts shipments will reach 9.36 million by Q400.

The reason Dickinson cited Schlicting and the reason why I talked to Dickinson in July is that Cirrus Logic has developed a double-density encoder/decoder (informally, the "endec" and, officially, model CR3490) that makes it possible to store 1.3GB of data on a CD-RW disc. It's also specified to enable a readspeed up to 48X (double that of read-only drives and highend writers today); more importantly, it's specified to boost write speed--especially rewrite speed--to 16X, which is four times faster than today's top-of-the-line drives.

Yet neither a faster speed alone, nor high-speed plus double capacity, is likely to encourage drive-makers to shift from read-only to read/write machines if they have to make a financial tradeoff. What's amazing here is that they don't.

"You're getting double capacity at essentially no increase in cost," Dickinson said flatly.

The endec is predicted to sell for about $8 in 25,000-unit quantities and (obviously) even less in multi-million unit orders. At retail, 2X CD-RW drives have now slipped below $200. By mid-2001, it's easy to imagine a $99 2X writer. But most customers will go for the faster (4X) performance of $300 drives; and who'd turn down 1.3GB in favor of 650MB if it cost the end-user only $10-20 more?

Dickinson has been with Cirrus Logic for seven years and was named head of this division in 1999; though he's been in management for 20 years, he started his career as an engineer.

"I think you'll see double-density CD-RW capability showing up in CD-audio players too," he said. "That would mean two hours of music on a CD or the same amount of music as a CD has [i.e., one hour] on a smaller form-factor disk. So you'll see those smaller disks becoming popular in portable audio players. It will impact other applications too. Recently, Sony released a CD-R version of its Mavica digital camera with a 180MB 3.5-inch CD-R drive instead of a floppy. Apply double-density to that and you've got 360MB in the camera."

He gets no argument from me there. I've been riding the hobbyhorse for higher-capacity removable storage in digital cameras since I bought my first one in 1994. Where I might take issue with him, though, concerns DVD.

"It's always difficult to predict with certainty," he acknowledged, "but my sense is that double-capacity CD-RW will be adopted fairly rapidly. With DVD-RAM, you get four times the capacity [4.7GB] at twice the cost [approx. $600], which is a very different value proposition. It appears to us that the move from single-density CD format to double-density will be more attractive than the leap from CD to DVD. It provides a natural step. You can buy a CD-RW drive for roughly half the price of DVD-RAM and DVD-RAM disks have format compatibility issues with read-only DVD-ROM drives. So far, there's no consensus among manufacturers for resolving those issues.

Well, the DVD-RAM manufacturers (Hitachi, Panasonic, and Toshiba) have now persuaded the DVD Forum to adopt a spec called "DVD Multi," which will enable appropriately equipped DVD-ROM and DVD-Video drives to read DVD-RAM disks--thus doing for DVD what the "MultiRead" spec did for CD-RW itself. The first DYD Multi readers should arrive in 2001 and so will the first 1.3GB CD-RW drives. So, at least initially, the playing field will be level and the makers of both systems will be angling for the replacement market, as well as for new sales, since none of today's CD-ROM, CD-Audio, CD-R, or CD-RW drives can read double-density CD-RW media. Still, I'm going to let Bob Dickinson have the last word because I'm an advocate for optical storage, generally, and an optimist at heart.

"Yes, the 1.3GB media can't be read by today's CD-ROM and CD-Audio drives. That's certainly a reality," he said. "But look at how quickly things turn over in the business of PCs and peripherals. The transition can take place within a couple of years. It could be a one to two-year phenomenon, not a ten-year phenomenon."
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Title Annotation:Industry Trend or Event
Author:Glatzer, Hal
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Aug 1, 2000
Previous Article:SGI Proves You Can Go Home Again.
Next Article:Sticker Shock.

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