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Toshiba, NEC see blue in DVD future

The companies are working on a new DVD recording technology using blue lasers that can store up to 36 GB of data on a single-sided disc.

Toshiba and NEC are demonstrating a new DVD recording technology that promises a significantly higher storage capacity without a major investment in new production facilities.

The Japanese companies will present details of their blue-laser format, called Advanced Optical Disc, this week at the Optical Data Storage 2003 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. AOD is based on short-wavelength blue-violet lasers--instead of the red lasers that are now in DVD drives--to read data off of discs.

Toshiba said in a release that it has stored up to 36GB on a single-sided disc and that the technology can be applied to consumer electronics and computer products. Current Digital Video Discs hold about 4.7 GB of data.

The technology, however, is drawing a mixed response from some analysts.

"The appetite for new investments in new production lines is small right now," said Wolfgang Schlichting, research director of removable storage at research firm IDC. As a result, the claim that the blue-laser technology requires only a modest investment could resonate with manufacturers.

On the other hand, "the technology may be running too fast for end-user demand," he said. "For many, DVD is good enough."

Nevertheless, electronics companies are positioning their technologies to be leaders when (and if) consumers are ready to upgrade. Because the prices of DVD products are falling rapidly, manufacturers are looking for new technologies that could spark another round of upgrades, with higher profit margins for the hardware and media. The price of DVD drives paid by manufacturers dropped 33 percent in 2002, according to IDC.

Nine companies, including Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita Electric Industrial, Pioneer, Royal Philips Electronics, Samsung Electronics, Sharp, Sony and Thomson, are working on their own DVD recordable format, known as Blu-ray.

Sony previously announced a DVD recorder based on Blu-ray technology for the Japanese market, but has not commented on U.S. availability.

Toshiba and NEC are working with an industry group called the DVD Forum to gain the support of its 215 member companies.

The emergence of two blue-laser DVD recording technologies could lead to a replay of the competition surrounding red-laser DVD recordable formats--DVD+R versus DVD-R--which has caused some consumer confusion and slowed sales.

Toshiba and NEC said that their technology allows for backward compatibility with current DVD formats.

Representatives from Toshiba did not immediately return calls for comment. In previous interviews, they have said the recorders would be available next year.