Optical storage: RIP

TDK's 10 layer, 320 GB Blu-ray disk is a remarkable technical feat. Too bad it will never be a commercial success. Optical is a dead end - and soon it will just be dead. Here's why.
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

TDK recently demo’d an impressive technical achievement: a 10 layer 320 GB optical disk - using standard Blu-ray (BD) drive technology.

Too bad it will never be a commercial success. Optical is at the end of the line.

Why do formats die? When their reliability, capacity, performance, density and cost aren’t competitive. Which is where optical is now - even 320 GB optical.

You probably don’t remember punched paper tape - all the rage in the 60s and early 70s - but it was popular on 16 bit minicomputers back when 4k of RAM was respectable and 64k unaffordable. It was limited to a few dozen KB of capacity and not reliable in long-term use, so when 240KB 8” floppies arrived in 1973 paper tape was toast.

But floppies couldn’t keep up with the growth of applications and data sets. The 100 MB Zip drive was insanely popular when introduced in 1994, but by 1999 the format was on the way out thanks to cheaper and more capacious CD-R drives.

Despite heroic efforts to increase removable magnetic disk capacities - culminating in 2001 with the 5.7 GB Orb drive - today removable magnetic disk media is dead, killed by cheaper optical and more convenient flash media. Just like magnetic killed paper.

Removable: backup and transfer Removable media is good for 2 things: data backup and data transfer. Tape dominates removable media backup today with capacities rivaling the largest disks.

Thumb drives long ago replaced floppies for smaller file transfers - “sneakernet” - with external hard drives handling large capacities. With 1 TB 2.5” hard drives, even a writeable 50 GB Blu-ray (BD-R) can’t compete with a small hard drive in transfer speed or capacity.

TDK’s problem Which gets us to the 10x Blu-ray problem: even if they started selling it there's no market. Why?

  • Capacity. Successful optical media capacities have been competitive with current disks - CD-ROM in the early 90s; DVD-R in the early 2000s. Multi-layer Blu-ray will never be more than a small fraction of hard drive capacities.
  • Performance. 24x Blu-ray transfer rates are half that of today’s disks. And as capacities increase, disks get faster. Not so with Blu-ray: 48x, if it happens, will be the outer limit.
  • Reliability. Early adopters report that BD burner disks often don’t play on commercial players. That will get fixed, but multi-layer DB-R will have to solve it again.
  • Density. Managing a single piece of media is much simpler than managing 6 or 10. Hard drive density makes them much more convenient.
  • Cost. BD-playing DVD drives haven’t been popular on PCs, and BD burners are way more expensive, as is the media. A FireWire or USB hard drive can be had for less than $100, has much faster access times, higher capacity and faster data transfer. With volume BD-R prices will come down - but where will the volume come from?

Multi-layer BD-R has advantages, especially if current BD players can be updated to use it. But there is no commercial justification for distributing content on 320 GB optical disks and there isn’t likely to be one.

Hollywood has a real chance to make 3D work, but 3D HD movies will fit fine on BD. Put a 3D “Band of Brothers” on a single disk? OK, but really, getting up every 50 minutes to change disks isn't so hard, is it?

The Storage Bits take New optical formats will get introduced - like 750 MB Zip drives and 5.7 GB Orb drives did - but they'll stumble around the fringes of consumer acceptance before a quiet death. Many of the same forces that are killing BD - downloading, upconverting, cost - are closing in on optical media in general.

DVDs will be around for years - even as CD-Rs still are - but the focus is shifting to online storage and local disks. The industry has yet to crack the code on massive home disk storage, but that day is coming.

You'll buy HD 3D content online, download it, store it in your digital library, and watch it when and where you want. If your house floods your content suppliers will let you download again. Who needs the hassle to burn disks?

The one remaining piece is for hard drive vendors to get serious about building archive-quality hard disks. I love their technology, but they aren't the most forward looking group.

Courteous comments welcome, of course. Anyone want to buy a vintage USB Zip drive?

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