There's something very apt about a games company getting blasted by lasers. And, as in the very best space opera, it's the wrong guy on the end of the ray. Sony has had the PlayStation 3 guns spiked by an embarrassing lack of blue laser diodes, the key component in the Blu-ray drive -- there aren't enough to go around so it's cutting its American allocation in half and holding off on the European launch until March next year. As the PS3 is already late, this is thunderingly bad news.
Blue laser diodes are the highest of high technology, and they're not easy to make. The latest rumour (via DigiTimes) is that laser manufacturers are only getting 30 per cent yield from their factories -- most of the diodes they make simply don't work. For the video player companies locked in mortal combat over HD DVD and Blu-ray, this is merely an annoyance. The problem affects them both equally and . But it's deadly for the PS3 -- no matter how good it is, every day it slips and every unit Sony can't ship is money in the bank for Microsoft and its Xbox 360.
Blue laser diodes were invented late last century by Shuji Nakamura at Nichia Chemical Industries, who single-handedly engineered at least two revolutions in solid-state light-emitting devices. All those superbright blue LEDs around the place? They're his. The ultraviolet LED that promises to revolutionise water purification? His too.
Now, Nakamura's story is fascinating in its own right. He left Nichia in 2000, complaining he was still only getting a researcher's salary despite bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, and went to the University of California in Santa Barbara. Good move. Tomorrow, he's going to be given the €1m Millennium Technology Prize, the one Tim Berners-Lee won for inventing the Web, and the most valuable technology prize in the world. That's how seriously Nakamura's inventions are taken: there's talk of him making as big a difference as Edison did with the light bulb.
If only Nichia had taken him as seriously. Blue laser diodes are weird, using exotic materials treated in complex and non-standard ways; it's not just another run of a memory chip. You need genius to make them work: genius Nichia let go. The company and its licencees promise to have the yield problems sorted out by spring 2007, but no sensible fellow would put any money on things magically improving on schedule. When a semiconductor factory starts having problems, they can cascade into all sorts of linked issues: it can take a long time and a lot of money to work through all the potential solutions to the problem.
Things look blue for Sony now and they could get even worse later. This much excitement, even PS3 fans don't need. -Rupert Goodwins