When Vanessa Redgrave is plotting the demise of Tom Cruise on board the Eurostar in Mission Impossible, what?s the fancy storage device attached to her laptop? Could it be a portable CD-Rom drive? Perhaps a pre-production DVD-Ram, or a Minidisc or a DAT tape. Actually, secret agents on film choose the Fujitsu Dynamo 230 Portable ? magneto-optical (MO) storage.
Poor old MO has a reputation for being the boring old storage that?s due any minute to be blasted by DVD-Ram. But unlike DVD, MO is cheap, plentiful and available. That?s why the Fujitsu drive was one of the few pieces of sensible technology in Mission Impossible. There?s MO for the desktop, the notebook, the Lan and the enterprise. It may be slow to save, but the media?s cheap and the technology works.
This may yet give MO an extended lifespan. The prophets of doom ? notably IDC ? virtually wrote off MO when DVD was first proposed. But the delays in bringing DVD to market, the inability of CD-Recordable (CD-R) to match the capacity of MO drives and the will to survive of companies such as Maxoptix, which depend on sustaining the demand for MO, have kept the technology going.
IDC has already predicted a combined market of $9 billion for DVD-Rom and DVD-Recordable in the year 2000. ?We believe any vacuum caused by production capacity limitations or parts shortages will be filled by the latest CD-Rom and CD-R drives,? says its report. This doesn?t leave much room for MO.
Although getting a firm standard for 2.6Gb DVD-Ram drives has proved difficult, prospective manufacturers are predicting that it will quickly become the desktop standard. The reason? If DVD bridges the gap between the technical and consumer markets successfully, there will be so many drives to play the disks back, and media will be so cheap that the MO will be fatally undermined.
?The DVD-Ram format will have an advantage,? says Hisashi Yamada, technology executive in the DVD-Division at Toshiba. ?By the time it is available, an overwhelming number of drives will be able to read it.?
But the first standard for DVD is a 2.6Gb disk, which may not have the reliability of MO ? and storage specialists are not known for rushing after the latest fashion. By the time it becomes available, 5.2Gb MO drives will be widely available, giving MO the capacity advantage too. Yamada sticks to his defence of DVD.
?In terms of production, to make a DVD-Ram disk with 2.6Gb capacity is easy. The dispute is how to retain compatibility,? he explains. What?s at stake isn?t the 2.6Gb design, it?s how to make a backward-compatible 5.2Gb version. There?s still significant debate about this in the DVD consortium, and that has held back the ratification of 2.6Gb DVD-Ram.
There?s also the challenge of producing a reliable, cartridge-free disk. MO disks are supplied with protection, as they are most vulnerable to heat and dust. Enterprises have a clean-room option, or the use of the disks can be closely monitored; not so in the consumer business, which DVD must cover.
?DVD-Ram could go up to 5.2Gb immediately,? Yamada says, ?but we should consider matters peculiar to customer use such as fingerprints on the disks. Volume production is another challenge. It is a different story for industrial-use products.?
Not everyone is as bullish about DVD-Ram?s threat to MO. Koichi Ogawa, general manager of Fujitsu?s optical drive business, thinks that there?s life left in MO. He thinks this year?s 5.2Gb specification, when it is decided, will have a good opportunity at making inroads into the demand for DVD-Ram, because it can be adapted to read DVD disks. ?I wouldn?t deny there is hope for MO to enter the DVD world at some point,? he explains. ?The concept of a DVD-MO may not be impossible. This summer or autumn, DVD and MO may be vying for technological leadership.?
Others think that DVD-Ram will not be able to compete for several years. The established demand for MO runs at about 200,000 drives a year, IDC admits, and DVD-Ram will not become a viable competitor until DVD-Rom drives have saturated the market ? and that?s in the next millennium.
Users are going to need large-volume rewritable storage long before DVD-Ram becomes viable ? by 2000, the manufacturing, banking, utility and insurance industries will need 600 petabytes of data online, or nearly online. That?s 300 trillion pages of text.
This volume of data ? generated by the imminent explosion of document imaging in customer-facing businesses ? goes beyond what?s practical even for jukeboxes of 120mm MO drives, which generally top out about 500Gb. Instead, there will be a secondary market for 300mm MO drives in ?steroid? jukeboxes.
Further down the scale, the desktop ? where CD-R has become a rapid success ? is also a practical opportunity for MO to extend its life. It is cheaper than hard disk drives of Iomega?s proprietary solutions, but not as practical for online storage. Nevertheless, there?s a ready market in the graphics world ? Photoshop files can top 230Mb, and digital video can easily have 1Gb-plus files. In this market, MO is competing with the DAT drive. DAT?s cheap, but it is only for the very patient user.
Undoubtedly, this market will be dominated by the superfloppies. Market research firm Trend predicts that 25.5 million superfloppy drives will be sold in 1999. But new applications like this will also carry MO drives along. Trend?s prediction is for nine million MO drives in 1999 ? hardly an industry in terminal decline.
Small-format 3.5in optical drives are also beginning to appear. With a capacity of over 640Mb, Trend predicts that shipments will climb steadily by around 14 per cent in the next three years. The small-format drives will have higher capacities then ? 2.6Gb is probable.
No one in the MO camp is foolish enough to predict that it is a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, they are working to close off all the criticisms of MO from the past. The steady performance increase that has kept MO ahead of the tape market is one success; the ability to double capacity every two years is another.
MO?s biggest ally may not be technology. Its unique selling point ahead of DVD-Ram is a constituency of satisfied users. When DVD-Ram appears, it may be that too many potential customers will already have committed to MO.
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