What is it about electrical engineers? These guys just can't get along. A group of them brings a wonderful new technology to market, and another equally brilliant band creates another way of doing the same thing. It's the customers who end up sorting things out by voting with their dollars. And heaven help the consumer who backs the loser.
Think of the hapless souls who chose Sony's Betamax videotape standard over VHS. That didn't turn out at all well. For a more recent example, there's the ''plus/dash" war in the recordable DVD business. You can buy DVD burners that accept DVD+R disks or others that want DVD-R disks. Which is better, the DVD-plus burners or the DVD-dash burners? Depends on whom you ask.
Once again, the engineers have come up with two incompatible ways of recording data. But there's a lot more data at stake this time -- the massive amounts of digital information contained in high-definition movies and TV programs or next-generation computer games.
We've all grown accustomed to devices that use laser light to encode and decode digital data. That's how CD and DVD players and recorders work. A light beam scans across tiny pits pressed into the disk, or dye spots that have been burned on by a laser. But these technologies are limited by the size of the light waves they use. The smaller the light waves, the smaller the pits that can be read from the disk. As the pits get smaller, you can squeeze more data on board.
The wavelength used by a CD player is far thinner than a hair, but still relatively ''fat," so a CD can hold just 700 megabytes of data. A DVD uses a considerably thinner wavelength, so you can squeeze 4.7 gigabytes worth of data onto one disk.
And yet it's not enough if you plan on showing high-definition video or recording HDTV broadcasts. These offer much sharper pictures because far more digital information is used to create the images. Two hours worth of HDTV would fill about 25 gigabytes, way too much for a DVD to hold. What's needed is yet another light-based recording medium, one using a much thinner wavelength of light.
Blue light, as a matter of fact. The bluer light gets, the shorter its wavelength. It turns out to be amazingly hard to make blue lasers; it took scientists 20 years to lick the problem. But lick it they have, opening the way for blue-laser disks that can squeeze up to 27 gigabytes into the same space as today's DVDs. You can also use both sides of a disk, and put two layers of data on each side. That puts you at a maximum of 108 gigabytes.
Sounds grand, doesn't it? But problems abound. Cost for one thing: Sony's selling its first blue-laser device in Japan for $4,000. That's not as shocking as it sounds; DVD players were expensive at first, only to fall below $100 once mass production kicked in.
The bigger stumbling block is an impending replay of the VHS-Betamax fiasco. Once again, there are two standards for blue-laser disk devices, and each side can make a plausible case that theirs is better.
On one side, there's Blu-Ray, a consortium that includes most of the industry's heaviest hitters -- Sony, Philips, Samsung, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell. The Blu-Ray system offers the maximum in storage, with a 27 gigabyte capacity per recording layer. In the other corner stands the DVD Forum, a group that includes many of the same companies on the Blu-Ray team. Even so, the DVD Forum favors an alternative blue-laser technology devised by Japan's Toshiba and NEC Electronics. It's calls Advanced Optical Disk, or AOD. This system actually copies a lot less data onto each recording layer -- about 15 gigabytes.
So it's no contest, right? After all, bigger is better. Of course, it's not that simple. The AOD format can handle as much data as Blu-Ray, if you add a powerful data-compression program. And the AOD system is compatible with today's DVD disks. Not so with Blu-Ray.
Most of the industry is backing Blu-Ray. But consumers may prefer AOD, because it will work with the movies they already own. For now, we can let the engineers fight; blue-laser devices won't be ready for the mass market until 2005 at the earliest.
And by then, we may not care. While the techies were busy inventing their blue-laser systems, others were finding ways to squeeze more storage from old DVD technology. They're using some of the same tricks, like disks with multiple layers. This summer, Sony will sell a double-layer DVD recorder for computers. It will hold 8.5 gigabytes, nearly twice the current standard, and an internal version will sell for $230 -- far less than a blue-laser recorder.
In addition, we now have data compression techniques that will let a standard DVD hold nearly as much as a blue-laser drive. Industry analyst Jon Peddie of Jon Peddie Research in Tiburon, Calif., says that today's DVDs use a compression standard called MPEG-2. But there's a better version, MPEG-4, that can squeeze up to eight times as much data into the same space. Add an MPEG-4 compression chip to a multilayer DVD recorder, and you have plenty of power for storing high-definition video. As for the costly blue-laser systems, Peddie figures they'll be a hit with businesses looking to back up lots of data.
Maybe the rise of high-capacity DVDs will allow us to sit out the blue-laser wars. Or maybe the blue-laser lads will settle their differences and choose a standard. Otherwise we'll face a 21st-century version of the old choice -- VHS or Betamax? And we won't know which is which.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.