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Kodak and Sony to exit the large-format WORM market

There will soon be only two vendors in the large-format optical write-once (WORM) disc business, now that Eastman Kodak and Sony Electronics have announced their respective leave-takings. Sony has officially left now; Kodak will do so in increments over the next few years. That will leave only ATG and Philips LMS in contention for what was once the storage mainstay of the imaging business.

Kodak is scheduled to halt drive production in 1999, and to make media through March 2002, though it expects to provide service and support through March 2003. The company has been unique in offering a system employing aluminum discs that are 14 inches in diameter; all of its competitors, including Sony, use 12-in. glass discs. The larger media store more data (14.8 GB today), but they impose a larger size drive, and thereby push prices proportionally higher than the competing systems.

Sony is urging customers to consider its 5.25-in. WORM system instead of 12-in. The 2.6 GB WORM drive is slower in several performance specs than Sony's 5.25-in. MO drives of the same capacity, and it costs a little more too ($2,100 list). But it is a true WORM system--not the continuous-composite WORM (CCW) that's been available in MO drives since 1991. CCW discs have factory-stamped tracks that "tell" the drive not to overwrite data. The 12-in. WORM makers have been critiquing CCW ever since its arrival, claiming the data isn't really permanently written, and can be hacked; indeed, some government agencies want submissions only on true WORM discs and won't accept CCW.

Kodak can't be "A Major Player"

The market leader has long been Philips LMS; its 12 GB drive and six-disc deskside jukebox have garnered (depending on which analyst you ask) between 70% to 80% of all new system sales over the past six years. And since the WORM business is largely a replacement market, Philips LMS also takes the lion's share of that.

According to Dan Consilio, Kodak's product marketing manager for storage systems, "Either we're a major player or we don't play. If we don't feel we can be the number-one or number-two company in a business, we shouldn't be in it."

He noted that Kodak still plans to go ahead with the 25 GB upgrade that it has been promising since 1996. "I know it's unusual to announce a product's discontinuance just prior to its launch," he said. "But we will start taking orders for it in May and start delivery of new drives in June. We will also offer an upgrade kit for our 14.8 GB drive." Pricing may not be set until manufacturing begins.

A few months ago, Kodak sold its optical/intelligent character recognition (OCR/ICR) system to Adaptive Solutions. So Consilio acknowledged that Kodak is hoping to sell its 14-in. optical WORM business to another company. "We have some people who are interested, but nothing is firm. Giving more than a year's advance notice is unique in the industry," he declared. "It gives customers time to buy what they need, and make other changes, without significant impact to their business."

Sony seeks "A new class of customers"

Rather than lose or sell off its customer base, what Sony wants to do is to migrate users down to the 5.25-in. form factor, where it already has a significant share of the MO market, and a firm hold in the jukebox business. Sony's WORM and MO drives share the same physical dimensions, as do their respective media cartridges, so the two can be installed--even alongside one another--in the same jukebox; firmware distinguishes and segregates the otherwise incompatible media.

Sony is also expanding its jukebox line, to offer configurations with one, two, four and six drives, and 25-, 60-, 104-, 156-, and 258-disc capacities. An entry level configuration, for example, with 25-disc capacity and one WORM drive will list for $6,995.

"This is intended to be the first of a series of 5.25-in. WORM products," said Fred Bedard, general manager of integrated storage products for Sony's Computer Components and Peripherals Group. "At this price, we can expand the customer base for WORM-based solutions. Look at the value proposition: we're bringing the storage capacity of the 12-in. form factor, with its $200,000 to $300,000 jukeboxes, down the market chain to a new class of customers." Like the current generation of MO drives, the WORM drive stores 2.6 GB (1.3 GB per side). And like many other MO manufacturers, Sony plans to release a 5.2 GB MO drive (2.6 GB/side) later this year. So it is also working on a 5.2 GB WORM drive.

Dataquest analyst Mary Bourdon said, "There is, indeed, a market for WORM, especially for applications involving government agencies that don't trust CCW to be truly permanent. And considering the high costs involved in drives and jukeboxes for the larger form factors, there's a need to migrate down to something smaller."

Interestingly, Sony specifies that media recorded in its WORM drive can be used with the 5.25-in. WORM drive that IBM has been offering for the past three years; and that the Sony drive will accept IBM's older media: i.e., it can read 650 MB disks, and can read and write 1.3 GB disks. There is, Bedard said, "a business relationship" between Sony and IBM, but beyond noting that it does not involve a manufacturing cross-license, he would not elaborate. So it's a fair guess that, since IBM closed its own 5.25-in. MO factory in 1996, Sony has been manufacturing the drive all along and IBM has been OEMing it. Now, apparently, Sony is branding the drive itself.

Hal Glatzer is a contributing editor to KMWorld, 415-487-0720, fax 415-431-9516, E-mail

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