DVD’s have become big business in a short time. Not only are we finding them on computers, they’re also sitting proudly in living rooms in place of the old VCR, and in game consoles as well. Over the past year we’ve seen writeable DVD’s, even though the situation there is complicated by disagreement between the major players over a standard format. Well, things could be about to get worse. Yes, hold onto your hard disks, we’re could be besieged by yet another major development destined to consign even today’s state of the art models to the dustbin of technology history.

Over the past six years, the DVD has been one long success story. It’s become the fastest-growing consumer-electronics product ever. “The DVD market has grown at a phenomenal rate – we’ve reached the stage now, after about two years of mainstream DVD sales, that video took ten years to achieve.” In 1999 worldwide sales of dvds exceeded 135 million, and by 2000 this had jumped to 329 million. Last year that figure had almost doubled, with total revenue in excess of US$10 billion. And over the past twelve months we’ve seen the rise of DVD’s that can not only play, but record data as well. The confusing thing for us is that there’s no agreed standard.

“The DVD recordable market is currently in a state of flux, much like the whole VHS vs Betamax fiasco of the early 80s. We’ve got the same problem – we have multiple DVD Recordable formats out there, all vying for superiority with no de facto standard to actually settle the case. We have DVD-RAM, we have DVD-R and -RW, and we have DVD+R and +RW.”

Currently none of these recordable formats can store more than 4.7 GB of data, that’s around 2 hours of high quality video. Tomorrow’s DVDs, though, hold out the promise of blowing that away. Earlier this year the DVD forum, made up of nine major electronics companies, announced a new higher-density recordable DVD format called Blue-ray. Toshiba: “With blue laser technology, it’s possible to store up to 30Gb of data on a DVD, giving 3 hours of High Definition TV and more than 12 hours of standard TV.” In other words imagine the whole Star Wars series one on disc!

“Blu-ray technology, if it actually comes into being, will have a phenomenal effect. Blue laser is much more precise, much faster, much cleaner. It should produce much cheaper and faster devices that are more accurate so you can actually fit more on a disc.” So how does it work? “Blue lasers have a much smaller beam spot than the traditional red ones – it’s about a fifth of the beam spot. That’s the main reason you can store huge amounts of data in the same disc area. If you use two layers and both sides you can fit up to 110 gigabytes on a CD or DVD. That’s technically possible.”

Other potential applications include PC data storage while it’s high-speed data transfer rate allows for playback of pre-recorded video on the disc while simultaneously recording images being broadcast on TV. It’s a technology that is literally light years ahead of the competition, but will Blu-ray finally end the alphabet soup of competing formats? “We are targetting for the computer market using UDF – Universal Disc Format. This is very easy to use for audio visual and computer usage and that’s the reason we believe Blue Laser technology will become the standard within a couple of years.”

But not everyone is as optimistic. “My main concern is that whilst Blu-ray is a very noble technology on paper at the moment there is no real market advantage for any of the major DVD disc manufacturers to adopt it. All data formats, be it analogue or digital, whether it be voice, video or data, there will always be competing formats, none of these things have ever been successfully controlled by given standards so it’s always been down to market forces as to which one will prevail.”

There are other issues too. Even if Blu-ray does succeed, it won’t be backwards-compatible – in other words, forget about using Blu-ray DVD’s in today’s systems, which use red lasers. Still you won’t have to worry about that too much for the time being. Blu-ray won’t be available to us until next year at the very earliest, and by then, there’ll probably be a multitude of other storage media waiting in the wings to take it’s place. Thanks to BBC World