SIMI VALLEY — Digital audio tape is making it to the office before making it to the home.
For the past three years DAT, as it is better known, has been touted as a breakthrough in audio recording. Audiophiles have hungered for DAT recorders and the crystal-clear, compact disc-like sounds they produce on tape, only to be frustrated by political roadblocks that have prevented the machines from being imported from Japan and sold here in significant numbers.
Now DAT technology is being introduced as a backup data-storage device for office computers. Tape drives that record computer data on DAT cassettes are expected to be sold by about a dozen major companies this year, including computer giant Hewlett-Packard. Last week Hewlett-Packard announced its first DAT product for computers, developed with Sony Corp. Another player in the DAT computer storage tape market is Wangtek, a Simi Valley firm with about $110 million in annual sales that is part of Rexon, a Culver City company controlled by the San Francisco venture capital firm Hambrecht & Quist.
DAT marks a big step in backup computer data storage, which ensures that valuable office information will not be lost. The technology involves recording digital signals rather than analog electronic signals. In audio, DAT recordings feature signals free of distortion and hiss that do not deteriorate with repeated copying. In computers, the DAT tape drive's big advantage is that it nearly quadruples the amount of data that can be stored on the newest conventional tape drives.
Although DAT tape drives cost about $1,500 apiece, contrasted with $400 for conventional tape drives, the market for DAT is expected to grow quickly because of DAT's increased storage capacity. Freeman Associates, a Santa Barbara market research firm, estimates that DAT tape drive sales will soar from $1.7 million last year, to $28.5 million this year and as much as $360 million by 1993, which would give DAT about 16% of the computer tape drive market.
A single DAT computer tape cassette, which is three-eighths of an inch thick and fits easily into the palm of the hand, stores 1.2 billion characters of data. That means people can carry in their pockets the equivalent of an encyclopedia or two. "This is the next generation of technology," said David C. Wood, vice president of operations at Wangtek.
The DAT computer tape drives "will give us a quantum jump," said Ben Wang, who founded and ran Wangtek before leaving the company. Wang now heads WangDAT, a start-up company in Costa Mesa that plans to begin making a DAT data-storage device this year.
Most office computers have tape drives that allow operators at the end of the day to store their data on 1/4-inch wide tape as a backup to the hard-disk drives they use as their primary computer storage devices. Last year, some 1.5 million conventional tape drives were sold. Freeman Associates estimates Wangtek had about 25% of the market, putting the company a shade behind industry leader Archive Corp. of Costa Mesa.
Tape machines are generally too slow to be used as a primary source of data storage, taking 30 seconds or more to find the place on a tape where the data is stored. Although users may never need them, conventional tape machines offer the security of knowing that data, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time to replace, is stored safely should hard-disk drives fail.
The DAT tape drives differ greatly from the kind of tape drives sold today. In conventional drives, the "heads" that read and write data do not move. Instead, tape runs by and data is written in one long continuous stream.
But the "heads" in a DAT recorder move rapidly and write information on the tape in a diagonal pattern that resembles the lines on a barber pole, and its technology increases the amount of data that can be stored on the tape.
Ironically, the problems Japanese companies have had introducing DAT into the U.S. home audio market encouraged these same manufacturers to look for a market in computers.
The fight against DAT has been led by the recording industry, which worries that people will tape each other's compact discs with DAT machines. The industry's efforts have been been so successful that today few DAT audio recorders are available in the United States for home use.
'Gray Market' Sales
Audiophiles can buy them through the so-called "gray market," in which stores buy DAT recorders overseas and ship them to the United States. But those machines are expensive, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Prerecorded and blank DAT tapes are scarce as well.