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CD-R: The Longest Leaving Act In Town

by Stephen F. Nathans

More than once I've been accused of advancing a write-once agenda at the expense of a host of electronic technologies that are proudly and legitimately rewritable. And I'd no more deny that than being a card-carrying ACLU member if I'd been in town the day they passed out the cards.

Of course, I have got a bit of a soft spot in my heart for the DVD-RAM jukebox that's setting byte-for-buck records worldwide. And I just know DVD+RW will be the cat's meow if we ever get to hear it roar. The oft-knocked CD-RW has also done its share to get CD-R off the shelf and played a laudable role in supplying CD-R to people who took the writable CD plunge for all the wrong reasons.

From where I stand, all that rewritable stuff is just storage. It's just a container, now with increasingly invisible boundaries. It stays and plays where you put it. And when you're talking about something as capacious as DVD-RAM, stacked and juked (check out Cygnet's RAID-configured, striped InfiniRAIL when it debuts in November if you think a RAM box can't make your head spin), that level of storage is nothing to sneeze at. CD-RW isn't quite so compelling in that sphere. It's neither big enough nor fast enough to play with the big boys, and the trend in most CD-RW-inclusive storage devices has been to throw the spotlight on the hard drive component anyway.

Plus, what's always made CD-R so cool is its universal interchange, and its compatibility with consumer read devices, two features shared (almost) by its heir-apparent, Pioneer's DVD-R, but not with its younger sibling, CD-RW. And not with DVD-RAM, which bears no organic relationship to the three aforementioned technologies at all. What CD-R boasts that none of the other three do is cheap media. In this day and age, 650MB for $1 is not much for not much. So burn it once and let it go.

In three weeks' time, I will have been to the mountaintop-or more accurately, the valley, and beheld about the only thing that could potentially turn me around on all this. I'll have spent an afternoon in the cloistered confines of Sony Electronics' San Jose headquarters, enjoying a briefing on the most fundamental innovation in CD-R since the technology's inception. On that glorious day I'll receive my official introduction to a new Sony-Philips format known as "double-density CD-R."

Double-density CD-R is just what it sounds like for those with the inclination to imagine how such things might be achieved. It's a CD-thick 120mm disc, available in write-once and rewritable versions, that shares all the logical properties of CD-ROM/R/RW but happens to have twice the capacity of CD-ROM/R/W (1.3GB), and happens to be written with grooves twice as narrow. Picture two waterlogged camels trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle, instead of, say, DVD-ROM, and it sounds pretty epochal and technologically impressive, doesn't it?

I must admit I was a little lukewarm on the idea when they first broke it to me. No miracle cure to be sure, consider the obstacles this format will face when it starts making the rounds at COMDEX time. No drives will read it except the drives that will write it. No standard CD-R or CD-RW media, of course, will be writable at double-density or double-capacity with the drives, although they will write 650MB discs with all the facility of their forbears.

And that's, I think, what I like best about it. It gives you everything you get from perennial all-star standard CD-R, and also delivers, when you're ready for it, something significantly better for certain applications. We've seen 1GB-plus CD-R/RW discs before, but these were all written with proprietary compression schemes-which always demand a little blind faith-and of course could only be read back with the software that wrote them, in the drives in which they were written. And if some new variation on MultiRead takes hold in the CD-ROM/DVD-ROM production scene as fast as the 1997 version brought widespread CD-RW-read capability to CD-ROM drives, pretty soon it'll become one of those nice invisible advantages that most folks will never have to know about but will guarantee others many a good night's sleep.

I think this format will make me like CD-RW a little better now. When it starts offering 1.3GB of rewritable storage, CD-RW will make a stronger claim for that ailing personal storage market-where simplicity is king-a market in which it's never quite measured up, even to the middling likes of Zip and Jaz. Watch Iomega go ZipCD crazy when the double-stuff version starts to dig in.

Best of all, I like its backwards compatibility. I didn't get into this game as early as some, but just call me a new traditionalist. I never bought that "bridge technology" malarkey people used to say about CD-RW when they waxed wooly-headed about the DVD era to come; what were we supposed to do after we crossed the bridge, all fired up to recount our adventures, when we realized we had nothing to write on? CD-RW is here to stay, thanks to CD-R; CD-R, like DVD-R, will be with us as long as their read-only counterparts exist, since they remain the only formats that really make sense to the people who make CDs and DVDs for anyone's pleasure besides their own. But that's just what CD-R is best at, and it wouldn't be what it is without its versatility. Storage has always fallen somewhere in its secondary skills set, which is the one in which CD-RW has always done its best work, for what it's worth.

The word from Sony (speaking for Philips) is that they both just got better at it-100 percent better, in fact, in this storage world where capacity counts for everything. And if that means the electronic media world goes a few more years before squandering what it has in CD-R-and RW finally contributes to the format's survival in a concrete way-I say, write-once, write many, whatever. Just write on.

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