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Sony zaps back into optical storage

Sony has returned to the optical storage market with a blue laser-based disk that it anticipates will revive the sector

Sony Electronics Inc. has reentered the business market for optical storage with a blue laser-based disk that it claims will put optical technology back on the storage map.

This is the second attempt by the Japanese electronics giant to carve out a piece of the business market for optical storage. Sony, based in Park Ridge, N.J., was developing an Ultra Density Optical (UDO) disk but bailed on this effort when its revenues started to slip about 18 months ago. It refocused on its core market for DVDs and CDs aimed at the consumer space.

Sony's latest effort leverages its BlueRay technology for creating disks in the consumer market to manufacture its so-called Professional Disc for Data (PDD) for high-end storage applications. The company is going after the archive market for document and medical imaging, e-mail, multimedia projects, graphics design, audio/video editing and broadcasting.

According to a Sony spokesman, users have outgrown the current Magneto Optical (MO) disks, which offer 9 GB of capacity on a two-sided disk and are crying out for a technology that extends the life of optical.

Sony's PDD packs 23 GB on to a single-sided disk with 11 Mbps throughput. Blue laser technology essentially drills a smaller spot size on the disk, enabling the manufacturer to record more data on the media. In other words, end users should get more capacity per disk for around the same price.

According to analysts, Sony is correct in its view that users need a more up-to-date technology than MO, but they point out that UDO also fills this gap very nicely. Peter Gerr, research analyst with Enterprise Storage Group, Milford, Mass., notes that current UDO disks offer 30 GB of storage in a 5.25-inch form factor cartridge, with succeeding generations offering up to 120 GB by 2007.

Plasmon Corp., the chief manufacturer of UDO disks and libraries and keen to defend its support of this technology, notes that Hewlett Packard Co. and General Electric Co. are both resellers of its technology and that IBM is expected to announce a UDO-based library sometime soon.

Wolfgang Schlichting, research director at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said both technologies have their pros and cons. On the plus side for Sony's PDD, Schlichting said the company has years of development heritage in BlueRay. "It can leverage that R&D and has very deep pockets," he said. Going against it, PDD requires a completely new library as it is a new form factor. UDO isn't a new form factor, so this technology can slot into current libraries. "It's an easy switch from MO to UDO," Schlichting said.

The bigger issue, Schlichting said, is the long-term support for both of these technologies. "There are potential questions marks over both companies." He said Sony is a giant organization, but it's still a consumer electronics company and PDD is not strategic to its business. "It's not a Play Station -- if the market becomes too small, it might become unattractive," he said. For Plasmon, the expense of manufacturing the libraries and the drives is steep. Schlichting said that in the long run, it's hard to see how Plasmon can support expensive drive development in such a small market.

Roughly 60,000 optical drives were shipped worldwide last year, according to Schlichting, compared with 200 million DVDs and CDs shipped in the same period.

Both Sony and Plasmon appear to be committed for now. Sony's PDD comes in three models, all with an archival life of up to 50 years: an internal SCSI, an external SCSI and an external USB 2.0 version. The disk comes with formatting and backup software for Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh computers and is priced at $32.99 per cartridge.

Sony claims it has shipped the disks to early adopters, but it wasn't able to name any that we could talk to by press time.


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