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Why the CD is outmoded already

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Why the CD is outmoded already 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1988, The Syracuse Newspapers

Say goodbye to the compact disc. Say hello and then a quick farewell to the digital audio tape cassette.

Something better is on the way. Last year I would have predicted a long and happy life for those two digital music formats, but within the last few months something exciting has turned up in an unlikely area, and it has the promise of knocking CDs and DATs off their roost.

If it does happen—and it's almost a certainty, as far as I can determine—it won't take place soon. Compact disc players and the still-unavailable digital audio tape recorders will reign for quite a few years.

But instead of becoming a fixture on the audio scene the way the phonograph was for 100 years, CDs and DATs probably will give way to a new way of storing digital music that is far more convenient and much smaller. The new recording medium won't have any moving parts, and it will be able to be recorded and erased any number of times.

I call the new device an audio card. Don't look for that term in a dictionary; I haven't heard anyone else use it—yet. But there can hardly be any other name for what is coming our way.

I figure the audio card will be the same size and shape as a credit card (after all, even $4 calculators are credit-card size these days). It will contain millions upon millions of memory cells and operate just like the memory area of a computer, except for one thing: Unlike the random-access memory of most computers, the memory of the audio card won't disappear when the power is turned off.

The audio card will be played in more or less the same way that credit cards are used in bank machines. You'll just slip them into the slot of your little digitital player. Press "eject" and the card will pop back out.

Recordings that last 30 to 45 minutes have been standard for decades, so I figure the audio card will have to play that long to win over consumers. It's at this point that technology has to take a leap, because 45 minutes of recording time requires an incredible amount of storage space for the bits—the individual on-or-off digital signals—that are used in modern sound recording.

The storage required is so great—more than 2.5 billion bits of data space—that all traditional methods of looking at the problem of making a solid-state recording medium have just about given up on the idea, at least over the next few decades.

The easiest way to store a lot of bits without using something that spins or turns is to use memory chips like the kind used in computers. But even the most advanced computer memory chips of today can't hold more than a few seconds of sound in digital form.

Look at it this way: If you could get your hands on today's scarce one-millon-bit chips, you'd need 2,500 of them to store 45 minutes of music. They'd fill up a box the size of your microwave oven.

Some audio card, eh?

But A way out of this problem is coming from two directions. One is the inevitable progress in packing more and more data into memory chips. Four-million-bit chips are about to be marketed, and they'll be followed by chips that can hold eight million and 16 million bits.

By itself, that kind of development would turn our microwave-oven-size sound medium into one the size of a loaf of bread. So something else is needed.

It's in the form of software—computer programs that examine data and squeeze everything into a smaller space. You can't make bits smaller than they are, of course, so what these programs do is get rid of excess bits.

They're lopped right off the bit stream when the file—the group of bits—is stored. The program is so clever that it knows which bits to pluck off without losing any that are essential. Later, when all the bits are needed to recreate the original data file, the software does the opposite, putting all the right bits back where they belong.

Personal computer owners have been using programs like that for a few years. They're called archive programs or packing programs.

But present archive-type software only squeezes data by about 50 percent—not enough to squeeze our loaf of data down to a card.

What holds real promise is a new class of bit-squeezing software recently developed in computer labs. Programs have been announced that cut 90 percent of the bits from data files. Further research suggests that digital audio data files can be squuezed even more than that, and some experts have predicted that software could be written that will make digital sound recordings up to 100 times more tightly packed.

Software is cheap once it is developed, and memory chips will be cheap again once the factories gear up to handle the recent surge in demand. The combination of higher-capacity chips and clever programs to squeeze data could finally let us place the contents of those 2,500 chips onto a single wafer, no bigger than a credit card.

Beethoven would be proud.

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