BOULDER, Colo. — Digital technology is built on an elegantly simple foundation, a universal language of ones and zeros. Yet when it comes to storing those ones and zeros, the electronics world is a mess of incompatible memory cards, sticks and disks.
DataPlay Inc., a start-up bred in a Rocky Mountain hotbed for data-storage engineers, hopes to lead consumers out of the chaos with a new, universal format.
A wafer-thin disk encased in a 1 1/4-inch square of plastic, each piece of DataPlay media can hold at least five hours of CD-quality music, one hour of video, one console-style video game, 1,000 high-resolution digital photos or 100 e-books.
It's a masterpiece of engineering that gives at least one multibillion-dollar business--the music industry--exactly what it wants: a new medium that resists piracy.
More than 20 years have passed since the introduction of the compact disc, which boosted sales by prompting music lovers to buy new versions of the records they owned. Now CD sales are flat, and the industry needs a jolt.
The disks' multimedia capabilities and encryption technology could spark new approaches to selling music, movies and other digital material. For example, record companies could load a 500-megabyte DataPlay disk with music videos, backstage photos, tour schedules and older albums waiting to be unlocked for an extra fee.
For every new format that reached mass acceptance, however, there are a dozen or more that didn't. One reason is the fierce competition among electronics companies, many of which bring their own formats to market.
A more fundamental question is whether the public will embrace any new format for portable storage, particularly one that works only on new devices built for that format.
In the not-too-distant future, consumers will be connected continuously to the Internet at high speed, and their devices will talk to each other wirelessly. They'll download digital music and movie files from the Web and store their collections on computer hard drives instead of bookshelves.
With technology like that, why would anyone need disks? That world is still a few years away, yet some analysts say it's close enough to spell trouble for DataPlay.
"DataPlay is caught between a rock and a hard place, the rock being the CD and the hard place being the advent of digital music [online]," said analyst Mark Mooradian of Jupiter Media Metrix, a technology research and consulting firm. "It becomes very difficult to imagine a place for a format like DataPlay. It looks very transitional."
Engineering Delays Push Back Debut
To make matters worse, engineering delays pushed DataPlay at least six months behind schedule. Instead of making their debut last fall in time for the holiday-shopping season, the disks and players are now expected in April.
Those delays have left a number of consumer electronics and media companies in a we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it mode. "If DataPlay matures to the point where it's accepted by the mass market, then we would be more inclined to produce devices," said Phil O'Shaughnessy, a spokesman for consumer-electronics manufacturer Creative Labs.
Steve Volk, DataPlay's founder and chief executive, shrugs off the delays. Factories belonging to partners in North Dakota and Taiwan are cranking out blank DataPlay media as fast as they can make it. Another partner in China is assembling tens of thousands of the tiny, box-shaped "storage engines" that will read and record the disks, supplied by optical components from DataPlay's own plant in Singapore.
"We are in volume production now," Volk said, adding that the rest of the pieces are largely out of his company's control.
DataPlay's headquarters are in Boulder, a college town that became a mecca for data storage after IBM Corp. put a pioneering magnetic-storage plant here a quarter-century ago. Volk made a name for himself as an entrepreneur in that area, credited with helping a series of companies develop the pint-sized hard drives used by laptops, personal digital assistants and Apple's iPod MP3 player.
After devising the concept for DataPlay in his basement four years ago, Volk pulled together a team of experts from the magnetic and optical-storage fields. The basic idea was simple: to create a small, inexpensive disk that stored information as densely as a DVD.
Turning Volk's cardboard mock-ups into working models, however, required a series of technological leaps.
Chief Technical Officer Dave Davies, a former 3M engineer who helped introduce the CD-ROM, said DataPlay had to come up with much more effective error-correction technology while dramatically cutting the size and power consumption of the components that read and burn the disks.
Like a DVD recorder, the DataPlay engine uses a laser to change the physical properties of a blank disk, creating a digital code of bumps and pits in the disk's grooves. The optical components that do this work are "the world's smallest by a very large margin," Davies said.