Peter Cochrane's Blog: Good-bye CDs

So what's next?

Written at a Guilin, China hotel and despatched via the free wi-fi service

Many years ago I gave up using floppy disks because they had become totally ineffective. Average file sizes were growing in response to computers' bigger hard drives, larger quantities of RAM and greater operating system speeds.

Application producers had also created new mechanisms to do a lot more a lot faster. And finally, the leading machine designers dropped the floppy drive facility from PCs and laptops in favour of CD-only formats. Accessing a floppy now seems to warrant a trip to a museum and I cannot remember the last time I saw one being used. They just seem to have disappeared overnight.

The next big fatality was the VHS tape, overtaken in a few years by the DVD. Again they seemed to vanish in less than a year. So will the DVD share this fate as the next higher density format overtakes it? And where does this leave the CD? I'd say both are at great risk!

Already the ubiquitous USB memory stick is sidelining the CD for many applications and is augmented by the rollout of broadband. Downloading or sharing ~700MB of data, movies, games or applications is more conveniently achieved using broadband and/or USB sticks than CDs.

Another interesting development has been the process of local file transfer between machines. Sure we can all do it online but the configuration hassle is no mean undertaking, and how much easier and certain it is with a stick!

So my prediction is that the CD will go quickly, overtaken by the DVD and USB stick, and promoted by exactly the same mechanisms that killed the floppy - file size growth, increased storage demand, plus a growing universality that will leave the CD in the dust.

The really interesting arena is in the next transition - from DVD (~9GB) to a much higher definition version (~50GB). The snag is we have two competing standards and they are in the entertainment arena rather than IT alone.

When we transitioned from floppy to CD the capacity multiplier was over 300:1. The move to USB sticks, which have effectively become the new floppy in terms of pure convenience, is already over 500:1. In contrast the move from CD to DVD was only ~10:1. This seems to be a magic ratio in the industry. We tend not to react to marginal capacity or speed changes that are sub 2, 3, 4 or 5:1 but as we approach 10:1 a stampede is triggered and big changes become certain.

There are 2GB USB sticks on the market today and 5GB models are on the way. Relative to the standard CD we will see the density ratio quickly grow from ~3:1 to 6:1 and beyond. Moreover, they will be cheap and remain simple to use - and as disposable as the 256MB sticks today, which are already given away for free instead of pens at conferences! And so, as the new higher definition DVDs take hold, the cost of DVDs can be expected to fall rapidly too. Suddenly CDs will be gone, consigned to the museum with floppies and VHS tapes!

On the timing front there is a snag - an almost identical rerun of the 'tape wars' between VHS and BetaMax. Which should we choose as the new storage media standard: BlueRay or HD DVD? The former uses new production techniques that mean retooling production plants, whilst the latter means modifying existing plants. The latter got to market first, whilst the former is just being launched.

Both technologies have an impressive line-up of content providers and box makers in support, and the first HD movies are now being shipped to feed avid viewers who have already laid out for their own HDTV. So it looks like the battle lines have been drawn.

Personally, I favour BlueRay because it the most advanced technology and can offer 25GB per side, whilst the HD DVD is closer to 15GB per side. This is only just enough space for a full HD movie! Furthermore, the theoretical capacity limits for the technologies are around 200GBfor BlueRay with demos up to 100GB so far, whilst HD DVD is at 45GB with 60GB demos reported.

Interestingly BetaMax was technically better than VHS but lost the race. In fact it seems to be a general rule that the worst technology generally wins the day. But for HDTV and IT I sense a sea change in thinking by the consumers - and ultimately they call the shots.

My real suspicion is that the TV, game and PC box makers are siding more with BlueRay, as are the content producers. If I have to buy in the next few months it will be BlueRay because of all the advantages, and most likely, it will come free on my PC and laptop anyway!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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