Blu-ray optical disk format proposed

Nine of the world's largest electronics companies have taken a joint step towards commercialization of a next-generation optical disk system and with it raised the possibility of a new format battle.

The companies have agreed upon basic specifications for a blue-laser-based optical-disk system, named "Blu-ray disk," and plan to have the first version of the specification finalized and ready for licensing within the next few months. The format is being aimed initially at recording of high-definition television video -- an application in which more than 10G bytes of storage space is eaten up with just one hour of video -- but for the industry as a whole marks a milestone in the road towards systems offering even more data storage than DVD (Digital Versatile disk).

Blu-ray disks will be rewritable, 12-centimeter disks and have a data capacity of around 27G bytes, which is enough for two hours of high-definition digital television. They will employ blue lasers rather than red lasers, which are used in DVD and CD players.

Blue lasers have a shorter wavelength -- 405 nanometers compared to around 650 nanometers on DVD systems -- and that means the laser beam can be focused onto a smaller area of the disk surface. In turn, this means less real estate is needed to store one bit of data and so more data can be stored on a disk.

Prototype blue-laser-based optical-disk systems have been around for more than a year. However, one problem has hampered development of commercial systems: cost. A sample blue-laser diode currently costs around US$1,000, making consumer products based on the parts unrealistic. However, Nichia Corp., the major source for blue lasers, is expected to begin commercial production this year and the price of a blue-laser diode is expected to tumble once the company begins turning them out in volume.

Expecting the price to begin falling soon, many electronics companies have recently taken the lid off blue-laser-based development systems and the similarity of the work being done sparked the nine companies to begin working together, they said Tuesday.

Among the Blu-ray disk group are six of the 10 companies that worked on developing the DVD format: Hitachi Ltd., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (Panasonic), Philips Electronics NV, Pioneer Electronics Corp., Sony Corp. and Thomson Multimedia SA. They have been joined by Sharp Corp. and South Korea's LG Electronics Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

Four of DVD's main backers -- Mitsubishi Electric Corp., AOL Time Warner Inc., Victor Co. of Japan (JVC) and Toshiba Corp.-- are absent from the initial Blu-ray disk consortium.

Toshiba's absence is the most significant. The company is chair of the DVD Forum, the industry group that promotes DVD and handles development of new DVD formats, and has publicly stated that it intends to propose its prototype blue-laser optical-disk format to the organization as a next-generation DVD format. It's absence from the Blu-ray disk group raises the possibility that a format battle, just like the one that took place before the industry settled on DVD, may be about to begin again.

"We are not in that discussion group," said Midori Suzuki, a spokeswoman for Toshiba. "For the next-generation blue-laser optical disk, we will keep proposing a standard to the DVD Forum."

Before the DVD specification was announced, a group led by Toshiba and Matsushita was pushing a system called Super Density while Sony and Philips were promoting their Multimedia Compact disk. In the end, both sides came together to back one format, although in the computer area, where multiple standards often battle against each other or coexist, there has not been such harmony.

The DVD Forum has standardized two rewritable formats, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM, but a group of companies including forum members Sony and Philips have developed their own competing system, DVD+RW, which despite its name is not an official DVD format. The latter two companies are also pushing Double Density CD, which is a CD-based technology with double the storage capacity of regular CDs, and a multitude of other formats also exists, including Magneto Optical (MO) and CD-RW.

As if to demonstrate the concessions that had to be made to get the nine companies together around a single format, the Blu-ray disk group announced disks are expected to be available in three similar sizes: 23.3G bytes, 25G bytes and 27G bytes. The reason they for offering disks in three similar capacities? Some companies want to keep the price of disks low and so propose using cheaper materials that will be able to hold slightly less data while other companies prefer selling more expensive disks that can hold more data, the group said.

The companies are also yet to decide on whether the disks will be enclosed within a cartridge or not and Tuesday displayed prototype disks with and without protective cartridges.

Right now much of the talk about blue-laser-based systems is focused around high-definition television, where data needs are great. However the Blu-ray disk group is also considering development of write-once and read-only (ROM) formats for use with personal computers, the group said.

(Kuriko Miyake contributed to this report.)

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Martyn Williams

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