Part 2: Why Computer Users are
First Class Users -- and Consumers Are Not

Or, To Big Lou And Friends: Please Hurry Up (Back In 1996)

Francis Vale

To First Part, Last Issue

The consumer electronics cabal of Sony/Philips and Toshiba/Warner finally seems to be in agreement about how its going to divvy up the DVD patent royalty spoils. But amidst all the hype about the newly unified Digital Versatile Disc format and its initial 4.7 GB capacity, it is easy to overlook the fact that computer peripheral companies are already well down a parallel road. Indeed, one could even say that it is a parallel universe.

For example, Pinnacle Micro, Inc., a high tech (Irvine) California company, has its new Apex 4.6GB. As its name implies, this half height, 5.25", magneto-optical (MO) drive for desktop computing features a double-sided removable cartridge with 4.6 gigabytes total capacity. Unlike the read-only DVD, the Apex has full read/write capabilities. Currently, this CD ROM sized device offers the world's highest capacity on a single 5.25" disk (a DVD is 5").

The performance of the Apex is equal to that of conventional magnetic hard disk drives. It has a raw data transfer rate of 48 megabits/second, and a sustained synchronous data rate of 36 megabits/second. In comparison, the DVD technology offers a peak data transfer rate of only 10.8 megabits per second. (The data transfer rate of a CD is a measly 1.41 megabits/second over its two channels.)

The Pinnacle device has an average access time of just 17 milliseconds. Its data throughput and access times put the Apex unit squarely in high performance computer A/V hard drive territory (e.g. , the Micropolis 'Scorpio' 9GB magnetic disc drive, or the Hewlett Packard 2GB unit each offer comparable performance).

The Apex drive also sports an 'audiovisual' mode. This expands its data carrying capacity to 5.4 gigabytes by reallocating the space normally used by the error-correcting blocks, which are intended for regular computer data. In it AV mode, the disc's spin rate is varied to guarantee a constant data transfer rate of 3.3 megabytes/sec.

If the Apex drive was sold into the high volume consumer electronics market, it would likely sell at or below read-only DVD retail prices (expected to be around $600). Current street prices for the complete Apex PC storage system are less than $1,500. The removable 4.6GB read/write Apex cartridges cost $199, or less.

By the time $600 consumer DVD systems hit the street in mid to late 1996, one might reasonably expect that companies like Pinnacle will also have followed the typical computer/price performance curve. I.e., the Apex may also be selling for less than $1,000, and its cartridge media will also be much cheaper.

Consumers As Credit Card Fodder

But today, in comparison, for a paltry $40,000, Sony will generously sell you a professional 5.25" MO (magneto-optical) recorder unit that can store all of 1.3 gigabytes (for that kind of money, you can buy a few Apex drive units, and a high performance SGI 3D graphics workstation). Or if you like, Sony has a computer data storage version of its audio MiniDisc that you can buy. The computer MD stores just 140 MB data on its 2.5" media, has an average access time of 500 milliseconds, a data transfer rate of 150 kilobytes/sec, and costs $749.99 (Hint: save your money, and instead buy a $600 Iomega 'Jaz' 1GB removable cartridge drive which has performance close to regular hard drives).

Finally, hapless consumers who want to buy a CD recorder device (CD-R) can only get 60 minutes of audio, thanks to the vendor-crippled disc blanks. They also get stiffed for a royalty on every blank CD they buy. And, of course, they get all the joys of SCMS, which prevents you from making third generation CD-R copies. Only the audio pros get a full 74 minutes of CD-R audio, and no SCMS. (The next issue of 21st will have a good deal more about SCMS, and other such unfortunate things.)

But not so for 'business' computer users. For a street price of less than $1,000, they can buy a Colorado Memory Systems (a division of Hewlett Packard) SureStore CD-Writer for a PC or Macintosh. The HP blanks will record either 650MB of data, or -- get this -- a full 74 minutes of digital audio. Even better, blank CDs from HP cost just $12, and have a shelf life of at least 100 years. And no SCMS, or royalties!

The Apex unit, like the HP CD-R SureStore, is an 'open' computer device, which means you can read/write bits stored in almost any imaginable format. You can't do any of this with the present Consumer DVD, where the bits get all tied up in a unique, read only, format straightjacket. Moreover, you can be sure that many of these computer peripheral makers (and probably some consumer DVDs) will be supporting the new, high speed FireWire interface.

'Computer-only' market DVDs, both read-only and recordable, will also appear. And no doubt, like their sibling products, these new devices will also be free of SCMS, disc royalties, and all the rest of the nonsense that will likely be larded on to the consumer market recordable DVDs when they become available. These diverse DVD systems will all be based on the same underlying technologies; only the marketing of them will be different.

The DVD mixed-market incest is already well under way. For example, by 1997, Pinnacle Micro plans to introduce a 10 gigabyte, recordable MO unit. To get there, Pinnacle will use a proprietary, but Mitsubishi-manufactured, read/write disc. As it just so happens, Mitsubishi is also part of the Toshiba read-only DVD consortium.

Now do you finally see the (laser) light?

The Sky Really May be Falling

These contentious and problematic consumer DVD issues should have set off all the user warning bells. But there are those in the lofty arena of specialty 'high end' consumer audio -- read expensive -- who look at all that bit storage capacity on DVD (about 7 times more data storage than a 650 MB CD), and start to salivate.

These high end folks think that with all that media real estate, the limitations of Perfect Sound Forever can finally be overcome by adding even more bits, stored in new types of audio-only special formats.

Then, there are those in the high end who see all that new bit beach front as a way to finally get surround sound quality where it should be. So, they are setting their own agendas for new surround sound formats, like AC-3 versus DTS. So once again, we have numerous unholy vendor alliances about to embark on a crusade against the consumer citadel.

The end result of all this vendor/producer format mayhem will likely be: 1) En masse consumer turn off. 2) An even greater proliferation of incompatible formats. 3) A lot of needlessly wasted consumer and vendor money. A note to vendors: You just can't keep on messing with people's heads and emptying their pocketbooks, all the while believing they are too dumb to ever catch on. Not in this ubiquitous PC age.

A Way out of the Box

The irony here is that true digital convergence approach opens up numerous new money making possibilities for artists, entertainment companies, consumer widget makers, and dealers. Just look at what's happening in computers for guidance, where there is a huge market for software enhancement programs (and 'add-ons', like system utilities).

The market is even bigger for selling upgrades to the original software system (just ask Microsoft). So, content producer/vendor, why not also sell after market, content enhancing software for the digital album/system you just produced/sold?

Such after market offerings could include, for example, exciting new technologies like 3D sound rendering. As reported in Electronic Engineering Times, 3D sound is "More accurately defined as 'spatial audio' or 'interactive audio.' 3-D audio technology mimics the ability of the human ear to discern not just sounds but the location of acoustic events." The goal of audio 3D systems is thus not better passive listening, but rather interactive sound localization.

I.e., your head moves in one direction, and the sound environment shifts accordingly; like cocking your head in the direction of a particular sound emitting object. In fact, Microsoft's Windows 95 will support 3D audio for PCs, thus making this specialized technology a mass user, de facto standard item.

That PCs are now starting to provide enhanced digital audio processing capabilities is the key to understanding where digital convergence is likely going. In the next issue of 21st, we have a look at a potential new type of A/V consumer computer that you just might want to show to your friendly VC.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale All Rights Reserved

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