Holographic storage punishes DVD dalliance

While Sony and Toshiba play gang warfare with next-generation DVD formats, holographic storage is hoisting its standard for the default future format

Nobody knows what the future holds in store — or for storage. You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as the industry has spent the past couple of years indulging itself in a knock-down battle over which of two largely indistinguishable standards will inherit DVD's crown. No matter that nobody outside the business cares two hoots for which one actually wins, or that the interminable bickering has put back the market by a year: winner takes all, right?

Wrong. Internecine warfare is a luxury that can only be safely enjoyed when there are no barbarians at the gates. If anyone from the next generation DVD wars had looked over the parapets, they'd have seen a sight to chill them: holographic warriors bearing down with hundreds of gigabytes very soon now and terabytes to come later.

Holographic storage has been promised for many years, but so far it's always remained on the other side of the 18-month event horizon. You'll find a lot of technologies out there — laptop fuel cells, flexible displays, magnetic DRAM — all working in the labs, some even materialising in small booths at trade shows, none at the point where serious money has been put into actual factories. Holographic storage has crossed that point: by promising it next year, Maxell has pushed the 'Go' button.

It may not be successful: it'll be expensive to start off with, and if it can't get enough momentum quickly enough it may not come down in price or increase in capacity fast enough to properly compete. It has to cope with both next-generation DVDs and removable hard disks, which are becoming cheap enough to qualify for backup duties.

But in spending their time sniping at each other, the next-gen DVD proponents have left open a major opportunity that could have been safely closed. Market incumbents have huge advantages with established production facilities and an installed base, but like crab shucking their shells they're most vulnerable during upgrade cycles.

That's easily forgotten if you think you and your friends own the market. It is a characteristic of IT that nobody ever gets permanent control of what is in the end other people's data, a characteristic that many big concerns would like to change. This must not happen: innovations such as holographic storage must have a chance to compete on their own terms, and the market must have the chance to punish incompetent behaviour such as the standards wars. We know what companies such as Sony would like to do to us if they got the chance. Let's keep our future uncertain, and surprises in store.

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