during this presentation would be where new applications and market growth might come from. In contrast, the technology of laser and ink-jet presentation seemed almost infinite in its potential applications—particularly on the ink-jet side, where the printing of words on paper had led, somewhat surprisingly, to the spraying of genetic material onto gene chips and to the manufacture of flexible plastic circuitry and organic semiconductors.

The first speaker, Ken Walker, was the veteran of start-ups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and had until shortly before held the post of Vice President for Technology Strategy at Philips Electronics.


Kenneth E. Walker

Despite being “one of the casualties” of Silicon Valley’s recent downturn, Mr. Walker said he was “still bullish on the future.” He proposed a quick review of the state of the art to begin his talk on developments in optical storage, which he described as an established business that was not so much technology-driven as operationally driven. Pursuing the theme of the migration of technology, he noted that value was moving away from the creation and sale of drives and into the integrated circuits necessary to create drives and read the data, as well as into the optical pickup unit: that combination of a solid-state laser and plastic lensing that reads the optical device. While DVD and CD readers had become standard on PCs, certain limits in those devices’ capabilities were starting to be reached. Top-of-the-line CD devices, available from mass-market appliance and CD vendors, were rated at 48X to 52X (or 48 to 52 times the speed of the original audio compact disc), the equivalent of around 200 km/hour—a speed approaching the reigning physical limit for CDs, since operating at higher speeds would cause the disc to shred within the drive.

But if physics had placed a wall before the industry, a new set of capabilities had come along in extensions to the rewriteable CD-RW referred to as “Mt. Ranier” or CD-MRW. With Windows XP and a CD-MRW drive, Mr. Walker explained, it was no longer necessary to erase everything on the disc in order to add something to it; instead, material could be dragged on and off. Predicting that the optical device’s future would be as “the next floppy,” he remarked that after a long tenure the floppy was dead—PCs were being shipped without them—and the CD was taking its place. At the same time, however, a battle was taking shape between read/write and rewrite. Drives labeled DVD−RW and drives labeled DVD+RW were being made according to very different standards of rewrite-ability. In DVD−RW, a rerecordable format, a disc could be used a thousand times, but adding anything required erasing it and rerecording. In DVD+RW, which resembled CD-MRW, additions could be made incrementally and sequential erasures were possible, with whole segments able to be erased and reused.

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