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Socrates, Pascal, and Multilayer Blu-ray Discs

Socrates tells us that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. The same can be said for business. With scores of product launches and decades of market experience behind it, the optical storage industry has had ample opportunity for introspection. But, sadly, I see little evidence that past experience has entered the minds of manufacturers who, time and again, hurl themselves and their prospective market into the same (or even worse) predicaments. Over the years I’ve highlighted many of these quandaries but I’m truly alarmed about the path that forthcoming Blu-ray Disc (BD) is preparing to take.


Socrates, Pascal, and Multilayer Blu-ray Discs

Hugh Bennett
EMedialive, December 20, 2005

“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” — Blaise Pascal, Pensees (sec. 6, no. 347)

Socrates tells us that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. The same can be said for business. With scores of product launches and decades of market experience behind it, the optical storage industry has had ample opportunity for introspection. But, sadly, I see little evidence that past experience has entered the minds of manufacturers who, time and again, hurl themselves and their prospective market into the same (or even worse) predicaments. Over the years I’ve highlighted many of these quandaries but I’m truly alarmed about the path that forthcoming Blu-ray Disc (BD) is preparing to take.

BD, of course, isn’t the only blue laser technology vying to succeed CD and DVD. For the past few years we’ve endured the nonstop debate, invective, and spin between BD and HD DVD. But there shouldn’t be any question left that BD is technologically superior to its rival. To start with, discs will come in straightforward prerecorded (BD-ROM), recordable (BD-R), and rewritable (BD-RE) versions in both single (SL) and dual-layer (DL) configurations. This translates to true next-generation capacities of 25 and 50GB (as opposed to HD DVD’s 15 and 30GB).

Thus, the most obvious tactic marketers use to push BD is to emphasize its superior capacity over HD DVD. But as so often happens when pressing an advantage, BD’s promoters just don’t know when to stop. For example, they’re now promising future increases by having designers tack on additional data layers to next-generation discs (akin to adding more floors to a building whose foundation is already poured). While first-generation BDs employ one and two layers, proposals for new versions would see this increase to four (100GB), six (150GB), and perhaps even eight (200GB). But as in any hotly contested political election, tantalizing promises are sometimes made without discussion or understanding of how such grandiose ideas could actually be brought to reality.

To start with, inexpensively fabricating such complex multilayer discs will be a challenge to say the least. But I’m far more concerned about the chaos that will erupt at the market level. Given technological and market realities, and the fact that BD disc and product test specifications (as well as hardware command sets) only recognize formats of their respective generations, I can’t see how new iterations of multilayer media can be anything but incompatible with all BD devices already sold. Just think back to the old compatibility problems of CD-RW, the move from DVD-RAM version 1.0 to 2.0 (2.6GB to 4.7GB) or even ahead to next year when DVD+RW DL and DVD-RW DL are to be launched.

My doomsday scenario would be for manufacturers to roll out successive generations of multilayer discs as they become feasible to manufacture. It doesn’t take a lot of cynical imagination to envisage dual layer at launch time with tri- or quad-layer products coming out in a few years followed by six- then eight-layer discs. Or, worse yet, rolling out every multilayer variation of each BD variety (BD-ROM, BD-R, and BD-RE) when these become technologically possible. Every time layers are added and variations constructed, existing hardware won’t be able to read or write the new discs. Users, content providers, manufacturers, and retailers will drown in the undertow of incompatibility.

Even conceding a more rational evolution of one or two more generations (say from BD-50 to BD-100 then BD-200), what movie studio or game developer would be interested in underwriting that? Content publishers might indeed be enthusiastic to embrace ultra high-capacity discs to condense complete TV series, offer multiple movies in full HD MPEG-2 quality, and the like, but all that must rest on universal compatibility. And not even the writable market could stomach what amounts to be an entirely new disc format at random intervals.

Do I worry too much? Maybe. But once again, maybe Pascal was right.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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