Consider a blank piece of paper. You can focus your consciousness on its whiteness to achieve a state of Zen bliss. You can fold it into an airplane, a duck, or any other origami shape. More important, you can store things on it. In fact, paper is the greatest storage medium ever invented. Ever since the ancient Egyptians pounded papyrus into paper six-thousand years ago, paper has recorded our greatest thoughts (the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and our most banal (the lyrics for the Beatles' She Loves You). It is the ideal low-density storage medium. If you write on it with a pencil, it is erasable and rewritable. If you use a pen, it is write-once. Paper can hold black-and-white or color, and it's good for multimedia, able to hold both text and graphics. Paper is read optically, by viewing the contrast in light reflecting from its surface. As a result, you can read the same words again and again without wearing out the paper. A paper page can be read in detail or quickly scanned. Even a great number of pages allows random access and can be easily bookmarked. Whether it holds something beautiful (the Mona Lisa), something profound (the Declaration of Independence) or something that fills the blank space between two ads (``Signals''), paper is simply great. Despite technologists' predictions of a paperless society (predictions that are usually printed on paper), I suspect that paper will be around for a long, long time.
Most other storage media and their messages are short-lived in comparison. The graffiti sprayed on subway cars do not last long, and the messages traced by skywriting airplanes quickly dissipate. High-tech digital storage media also seem to come and go with great rapidity. Perhaps that is because they are not made of low-tech paper. Thomas Edison was working with a paper disc recorder (storing telegraphic dots and dashes) when he first conceived of the audio phonograph. He immediately realized that paper wasn't suitable, so he used tin foil instead, and later wax and celluloid. His cylinder endured for about fifty years. Its rival, the analog disc, now almost 120 years old, endures even to this day. Most other audio media are less lucky. The eight-track tape cartridge, for example, like James Dean, burned brightly but briefly before disappearing.
Some audio storage media never get a toehold at all. When Philips launched the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) tape format, and Sony launched the MiniDisc (MD) format, both companies hoped that their inventions would replace the analog cassette. Despite very vigorous promotion, for a variety of reasons (perhaps starting with the fact that the new media competed more against each other than against the cassette), neither DCC nor MD fared well, and the analog cassette is still rolling along. DCC has been officially pronounced dead by its maker, but the MD is still clinging to life in a desperate attempt to become more than a footnote in the history of audio storage devices.
There is a lot to like about the MiniDisc. It is small (64-millimeter in diameter) and cute. It is both writable and erasable, and it provides both random access and shock-resistant portability. Although it has a 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital audio data stream, just like a CD's, an MD recorder uses data compression to store 74 minutes of music within its small 140-megabyte capacity. The adequacy of MD's data-compression algorithm was criticized when it was introduced, but in reality the sound quality of even first-generation MD products was pretty good. Subsequently the algorithm was improved, and today most listeners cannot hear a difference between a CD and an MD recording of it, especially in the portable environments where MD is strongest. Whether as a home player/recorder, a car player, or a shirt-pocket player, MD would seem to have good prospects.
At least Sony thinks so. Convinced that MD is far from a lost cause, and heartened by its being a big hit in Japan, Sony is working hard to reawaken the U.S. buying public to the advantages of MiniDisc. The company is running add campaigns in several metropolitan areas, and it's offering a bundled system comprising a home MD recorder and a portable MD player. Sony believes that the analog cassette is as vulnerable as ever, and with or without record-label support for prerecorded MD's, Sony argues that the MD is exactly what people want and need for convenient digital recording and playback. In particular, with DCC gone, Sony thinks that MD has a clean shot at the analog cassette.
Sony is also encouraged by the DAT-like emergence of MiniDisc in semi-professional ``ministudio'' applications. These four-track boxes have enough mixing, editing, and storage capabilities that home recordists can produce their own music demos. Ministudios have traditionally used cassette storage, but new MD ministudios were introduced this past fall. Priced at $1,000 or more, they use MD-data discs (which are incompatible with MD-audio discs) to provide sophisticated editing and track-copying capabilities that far surpass those of cassette-based ministudios.
While there are certainly still signs of life in MD, the question of its life expectancy remains. Although it is not yet successful, it is growing old. Development of the MD began way back in 1986, and it was launched in 1992, when the world was a much simpler place. Now there is a variety of excellent, low-cost optical media available, with more on the way. After years of delay, including some strategic corporate foot-dragging to give CD-recordable (CD-R) a chance to establish itself in the market, the CD-RW (rewritable) format has been introduced. A CD-RW recorder can record and erase and rerecord its own CD-RW discs, read and record CD-R discs, and read CD-audio and CD-ROM discs. Although initially aimed at computer users, there is no reason (aside from a few copyright concerns) why CD-RW couldn't be used for purely audio applications. In addition, already on the horizon is CD-RW's successor, the high-density, rewritable DVD-RAM format. Its 80-millimeter implementation, holding 5.2 gigabytes of rewritable data, would devastate the MD format.
Clearly, the clock is ticking for MD, just as it ticks for all technologies. Ultimately, no one can predict the fate of the MiniDisc, or that of its current or future rivals, but one thing is certain. We will write their obituaries on paper.
I am thankful that Ken Pohlmann wrote his criticisms of the MD format. I think well stated opposing viewpoints help keep folks from getting wrapped up in their own hype. Although Ken's tone is not optimistic, he still manages to say several positive things about MD. But he also makes some statements that to me seem a bit misleading and I would like to consider them briefly here.
``...but the MD is still clinging to life in a desperate attempt to become more than a footnote in the history of audio storage devices.''Well, MD's maker (Sony) can cling, and MD users can cling, but MD itself is inanimate. So, I decode this as saying, ``there are still many who feel the format is interesting and worthwhile''. I do not notice any desperation however.
``There is a lot to like about the MiniDisc. [...] MD would seem to have good prospects.''These are neutral comments about some of the nice features of the format. He even says that sound quality is not a problem. All of this is subsequently wiped out by the next sentence:
``At least Sony thinks so.''Gee, it seemed like he thought so too.
``While there are certainly still signs of life in MD, the question of its life expectancy remains.''Everything has a life expectancy. Is he really saying that we are going to have trouble getting media or stop seeing new equipment in a few years? This does not seem likely. I think the real question is whether it catches on as a mainstream product outside Japan, and admittedly that is not assured yet. But this does not need to occur for MD to be useful to its users.
``Although it is not yet successful, it is growing old. Development of the MD began way back in 1986, and it was launched in 1992, when the world was a much simpler place.''One man's ``old'' is another's ``mature''.
``Now there is a variety of excellent, low-cost optical media available, with more on the way.''Yes, but none of these [R/W optical media] have even been proposed as a mainstream consumer audio format, much less marketed as such.
``A CD-RW recorder can record and erase and rerecord its own CD-RW discs, read and record CD-R discs, and read CD-audio and CD-ROM discs. Although initially aimed at computer users, there is no reason (aside from a few copyright concerns) why CD-RW couldn't be used for purely audio applications.''This is the part that I feel is the most misleading. These CD-RW discs cannot be read on any of the more than 600 million CD-ROM and CD-Audio drives installed in the world. CD-RW is a format with zero installed base, as far as its rewritability is concerned. I see it as an an incompatible format facing the same difficulties MD did, but lacking MD's portability and non-linear editing capabilities (the current CD TOC does not support discontiguous segments of audio), it also faces competition from an increasingly entrenched, disc based audio format, namely MiniDisc! It would have two advantages over MD: the ability, in theory, to allow perfect copies, (though SCMS will certainly be used to prevent this), and the ability to play CDs from the existing base of pre-recorded material. The latter would indeed be a plus.
``In addition, already on the horizon is CD-RW's successor, the high-density, rewritable DVD-RAM format. Its 80-millimeter implementation, holding 5.2 gigabytes of rewritable data, would devastate the MD format.''I am not sure where this 5.2 gigabyte capacity in an 80mm format comes from. The DVD FAQ talks about a full size DVD-RAM having a capacity of only 2.6GB. DVD-RAM has the same incompatability problems as CD-RW, but does not even exist yet, much less have an installed base. The potential for MD's devastation would occur if DVD audio became a universally accepted format, with playback devices as common as the CD player, then DVD-RAM audio recorders could make discs that would be playable anywhere. However, it appears that existing DVD players won't be compatible for DVD-RAM playback, so in order for DVD-RAM recorders to have universal playback capability, the world would have to standardize on a second generation of DVD equipment. When and if that happens, it will indeed be time for MD's replacement.
My humble opinion is that for the next several years, mass acceptance of DVD-RAM audio is considerably less likely than mass acceptance of MD, given that MD is already mature, economical, and well established, albeit primarily in Japan. Daryl O. considers DVD audio's position with respect to MiniDisc and comes to a similar conclusion.
Thanks for the thought provoking article Ken!