posted by Thom Holwerda on Mon 18th May 2009 12:28 UTC
IconAs you'll hear in the latest OSNews podcast (recorded yesterday, published later today), we had a discussion about Sony and some of its failed attempts at capturing mind share with proprietary technologies, among which the excellent but mismanaged MiniDisc technology. Imagine my surprise when I was browsing the web this morning, looking for news, and stumbled upon a supposedly new model of the Aspire One - with a Vmedia drive. A what?


MiniDisc?

For those that are unfamiliar with the MiniDisc format, let me give you a quick overview of the history of the MiniDisc in four words: superior, expensive, mismanaged, doomed.

MiniDisc, introduced in 1992, was far superior to anything else on the market. CDs were not recordable at the time, the portable audio market was still dominated by cassette tapes, and portable CD players didn't yet have anti-skip technology - and were pricey too. Then MiniDisc came - completely digital, recordable, supported editing of audio on-the-go, track/album information, linear PCM recording, and most importantly: anti-skip thanks to its buffer technology.

The discs themselves were incredibly resilient (you can play tennis with those things), and could store up to 80 minutes of music in the early days, in 2000 expanded to 160 minutes (LP2) and 320 minutes (LP4) with the introduction of MDLP (MiniDisc Long Play). In 2004, Sony introduced HiMD, which is capable of storing up to 45 hours of music on one HiMD (1GB) disc (lowest quality setting, obviously).

So, if MD came down from the heavens to take us by the hand and guide us to the promised land, why did it fail?

Despite the recognised advantages of MiniDisc, the format never really took on. While popular in Japan and some areas of Europe (it was relatively popular in my area), it never gained a solid foothold in the rest of the world. The biggest problem was probably the pricing of MD equipment and discs; you had to license the technology from Sony to manufacture MD equipment, but there were too few takers to create a sustainable market. The result is that MD equipment has always remained expensive compared to other offerings.

On top of the high price came Sony's incredible mismanagement of MiniDisc. MiniDisc is heavily DRM encumbered, and to make matters worse, Sony refused to implement MP3 support until very late in the game (2005 or something). But the biggest hurdle for MiniDisc adoption later on was that the recorders were tied to the universally horrible SonicStage software. You couldn't use drag/drop with the file manager, and you were forced to use Windows. Limited Mac support was added during the HiMD era.

The MiniDisc saga is a textbook example of how not to manage a media format. MD had everything going for it, but Sony's incredibly dim-witted restrictive approach killed the format. It was destined to become the standard for both portable audio and data, but Sony managed to mess it all up. Still, I'm a strong MiniDisc supporter, and I will carry its torch until I die.


Vmedia?

You might wonder: why the lesson in how to not introduce, promote, and manage a new media format? Well, because there's a new portable format on the horizon, this time for video. It's from a company called Vmedia, and it's basically the BluRay version of MiniDisc. Small (36x36mm), blue-laser discs in a plastic casing, with a capacity of 1GB (single layer) or 2GB (dual layer).

Size comaprison: Vmedia vs. MD vs. CD.

They are designed for portable video, and if it were up to Vmedia, every portable video device gets a Vmedia drive - netbooks, MIDs, mobile phones, and portable video players. They store video in a 576p resolution using h264, and use AAC for audio. The drives themselves are the smallest blue laser players available, 48x47mm, with an even smaller variant coming this year.

Moving on to the issue of copy protection. Currently, the only discs available are pre-recorded, with recordable discs and drives planned for 2010. DRM technology makes sure you can't copy the contents of the discs, but how exactly this works, I don't know. Of course, Vmedia discs will play in any Vmedia player, like CDs and MiniDiscs. No word on region locking though, so let's hope it doesn't have it.

Vmedia is backed by Panasonic, which actually developed the technology during the past 4 years in cooperation with Vmedia. "The Vmedia optical drive is an important new solution for bringing high quality video to mobile devices," Director of Panasonic Research and Development Laboratory, Hiroaki Sakai, said, "We believe that this technology will open up a new market for PCC in mobile entertainment. We are pleased to be working with Vmedia and the entire Vmedia ecosystem on this exciting new technology."


Acer?

Since Vmedia technology is relatively new, it's probably quite hard to get your hands on a drive or a device that supports it (or discs, which I why I used a cardboard cut-out in the size comparison). If it's up to Acer, however, this will all change, as Acer is said to announce a media-oriented Aspire One with a built-in Vmedia drive (macles* is said to be reliable).

The Acer Aspire One 571 (not to be confused with the 751) is geared towards HD media use. It comes with a 10.1" display at 1280x720 (16:9), and can playback HD content thanks to the inclusion of a Quartics Q1721 Multimedia Coprocessor. This chip accelerates decoding and encoding of h264 and other codecs (even Flash), but also does hardware scaling and filtering. For the rest, it's yer average Atom N280 netbook...

...except for the inclusion of the Vmedia drive, located in the left palmrest. It's a pop-open loading drive, similar to how most portable MD recorders work.

The chances for Vmedia to catch on are of course quite slim, despite Panasonic's involvement. The media world is - sadly - moving to downloadable content, and in such a world, portable media, no matter how capable, simply don't have a place any more. MiniDisc is all but gone, its bastard child UMD also failed miserably, and there's little reason to assume the future will be any different for Vmedia.

Still, I wish the companies involved all the luck in the world, since for some weird reason, I'm a huge fan of MD-like formats.

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