Advocates of potential next-generation media formats appear en route to a significant competitive showdown.
Equipment makers and replicators are monitoring the situation so they can adapt to whatever format the marketplace chooses. Selection could start in late 2005.
Right now it's shaping up as a battle of blues - two technologies that use blue lasers to read data off DVD-style plastic discs.
Toshiba Corp. and NEC Corp. support a format known as high definition/high density digital versatile disc, or HD-DVD, while Sony Corp., Pioneer Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., Philips Electronics NV and others back the Blu-ray Disc, or BD, format. Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have joined the BD team.
Royalties are a serious issue. If HD-DVD wins, those backing Blu-ray will need to pay royalties to the HD-DVD team. But if Blu-ray wins, those backing HD-DVD will need to pay royalties to the Blu-ray team.
While Blu-ray obviously has plenty of corporate supporters, HD-DVD has some significant advantages of its own: HD-DVD machines would be able to play older discs, and also would enable replicators to retool without major equipment changes for the HD capability. As of July, the DVD Format/Logo Licensing Corp. of Tokyo had issued physical specifications for read-only-memory and rewritable versions of the HD-DVD format.
Replicators of the revolutionary Blu-ray format would require mostly new equipment. Blu-ray is suitable for recordable, rewritable and ROM applications. On Aug. 31, Sony said it had successfully developed an efficient BD-ROM mastering system for Blu-ray Disc pre-recorded content.
An executive with a large replicator suggested a possible market split. HD-DVD might capture the prerecorded market, and Blu-ray may control the recorded market.
Interviews about the technologies occurred by telephone and during the Entertainment Media Expo's Media-Tech conference and showcase, held Aug. 30-Sept. 1 in Hollywood, and also involved conference presentations.
Resin supplier General Electric Co. is one company with a stake in the contest. The company has explored qualification of possible Blu-ray materials over two years. Noryl EXLN0090 has proven itself in Blu-ray trials vs. optical-grade Lexan polycarbonate. The Noryl product ``shows better dimensional stability than standard PC,'' said Matt Niemeyer, process development leader at GE Advanced Materials' optical media development center in Pittsfield, Mass.
In a technical contrast, Niemeyer noted that a DVD has a symmetric structure while a BD exhibits an asymmetric structure.
BD materials will be more expensive, said Ed Gehrich, director of engineering with a Sony unit in Terre Haute, Ind., but a BD system requires one molding machine instead of two and one sputtering machine instead of two.
``Blu-ray is the ultimate format for maximum optical media storage'' of 25 gigabytes for a single-layer BD and 50 gigabytes for a dual layer, said Jacques Heemskerk, a technology developer with Philips in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. A standard DVD can hold 4.7 gigabytes of content.
Paul Hebert speculated that the HD-DVD format would succeed in the marketplace because it offers the easiest transition for consumers already contemplating HD-compatible television sets.
``I think HD will be the next'' format, Hebert said, expressing a personal opinion. He owns P3 Disc Solutions in Portland, Maine, and, in April, began handling equipment sales as a representative of Toyo Machinery & Metal Co. Ltd.
Injection molding machinery supplier Netstal Machinery Ltd. of NÃ¤fels, Switzerland, also tracks the developments.
``Regularly, we are doing tests with Blu-ray stampers [and] HD-DVD stampers,'' said Paul Ackermann, area optical-disc-equipment sales manager with Netstal. ``We know how to manufacture them. For us, it is not a big problem.''
The HD-DVD format extends use of existing molding equipment, but the Blu-ray format requires ``some other investments,'' Ackermann said. A replicator of HD-DVDs would make small process adjustments but not require new equipment.
As Blu-ray technology climbs the learning curve, manufacturing yields are increasing, but Ackermann wonders if the improvement is fast enough.
``We have to get to a point where 90 or 95 percent of the product that comes out must be good,'' he said, noting reports of 70 percent yields.
For replicators, ``the cover layer for the Blu-ray disc is still, in my mind, a problem,'' Ackermann said. A Blu-ray disc has a 1.1-millimeter substrate and 0.1mm cover layer of a spin coating or cast film. A DVD consists of two 0.6mm discs.
In 2001, Netstal moved toward trials for a Blu-ray-type technology with a 130mm-diameter disc product - instead of magnetic tape - for a customer's use in bank and other data storage, Ackermann said. Traditional DVDs and CDs and other Blu-ray discs have a 120mm diameter.
A unit of Plasmon plc of Cambridge, England, began running the Netstal system in production in 2002 and launched its UDO drives and media for secure archival storage in November 2003. UDO, standing for ``ultra- density optical,'' comes in write-once and rewritable formats.
Replicators and others cringe at the thought of capital investment if the BD format succeeds.
``Consumers won't tolerate a technology change immediately,'' said Karl Renwanz, president of High Speed Video Inc. in Southborough, Mass.
Renwanz noted North American overcapacity in the replication industry. ``I see more consolidation'' coming, he said. It's ``tough out there,'' and higher PC costs contribute to the woes.
Morris Ballen, president of Disc Makers in Pennsauken, N.J., said the business of compact disc replication has shaken off some excess capacity through plant closures and consolidations and adjusted to lower demand for ROM and audio CDs.
The Media-Tech Association of Wiesbaden, Germany, presented EMX with support from the International Recording Media Association of Princeton, N.J., and CMP Information Inc. of New York.
* * *
Battle of the blues
Blu-ray Disc (BD):
What is it: Blu-ray Disc is an optical-disc format using a blue-violet laser (the same size as CD and DVD) to store digital sound and video with high quality.
What is it: High definition/high density-DVD discs use blue lasers and are almost physically identical to current DVDs but hold greater data storage capacity than traditional DVDs.
Source: Plastics News; Blue-ray Disc; Mac Publishing LLC, San Francisco, Calif.