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Solid-state storage devices show a lot of promise

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Solid-state storage devices show a lot of promise

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

Recording tape is a would-be has-been. We've known that for a couple of years now, as disk recording continues to improve. But recent developments are showing that even disks are an endangered species.

In audio, disk recording is already being marketed in the form of Sony's magnificent mini disc. An MD recorder can capture more than an hour of high-quality sound on a disk so small that it will fit into your wallet.

And video, too, will have disk recorders in another year or so. Professionals are using them already, but they're very expensive. Consumer versions will be better and cheaper, and they'll have long recording times—something the pro machines don't have yet.

But two developments in separate areas of technology are about to come together to launch an era in which both tape and disk recording will gradually disappear.

The first is the invention of vastly improved memory devices that need no moving parts. At present, these memory cards, as they are called, can store about 10 minutes of high-fidelity audio in digital form.

That's not long enough for anything except two or three songs in a pop-music album, but longer recording times are possible even from today's memory cards if the audio signals are compressed or manipulated in some other way. In a couple of years, the combination of larger-capacity memory cards and efficient audio compression should produce audio cards with one-hour playback times.

Video cards capable of one-hour times are further away. However, even though a video recording needs much more information (in the form of data) than an audio recording, video compression has already been refined to an amazing degree. Computer devices can already compress moving pictures into a small storage space, and this technique is being steadily improved.

The second development is the current research into ways of sending audio and video recordings by satellites or telephone lines from a central location to stores—or even to consumers at home. Some attempts at doing this commercially have already begun, and at least one technique uses the cable-TV feed that comes into a typical home.

One method uses a compact disc recorder located in a music store. New recordings are stored in a memory area and duplicated on the CD while you wait.

But the method that is finally adopted is likely to incorporate audio and video cards about the size of credit cards. One scenario that I consider likely goes like this: You go to a machine that looks like a bank's automated teller machine (ATM), put in your credit card for billing information, then slip your audio or video card into another slot. The computer screen in front of you gives you a choice of thousands of recordings, with an easy-to-use search function so you can find what you want. Then you type in a code. A few second later, out pops your card with a label on it, ready to play.

No one will be able to copy these cards on another digital recorder, because they will have built-in coding that disables playback if it is being directed into a digital recorder. But they will be playable any number of times without a loss of quality, just like CDs can.

And, if the industry can agree on this, they will be able to be erased and put back into the recording machine time and time again. Some industry experts are afraid such an easy rerecording capability would cut the sales of blank cards (which probably would sell for $10 to $20), but others point out that the real income in such a setup would come from royalties and copyright fees, anyway.

Nothing like this sort of ATM-type vending machine for audio or video recording cards exists now, so you can continue to enjoy your tapes, CDs and mini discs without guilt for some time. But there is little doubt that this new technology will be here before the end of the decade. There is even some evidence, based on the rapid improvements in the parallel area of computer technology, that the first attempts at such a device could occur in the next few years.

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