How long until we start using compact discs (CDs) as
coasters and frisbees? Their glamour has faded to the
extent that some leave them lying about, unsleeved,
When the CD hit the market in 1982, courtesy of a
collaborative effort between Sony and Philips, it
generated considerable excitement. True, it could get
scratched, but its convenient size, crisp digital sound
and absence of crackling made it far more seductive than
The product proved irresistible, wiping out the
record market in many countries within a few years,
despite the first CD title being Billy Joel's 52nd
Street . Now there are games, software applications,
encyclopedias, presentations and other multimedia
programs available on CD.
Originally designed to carry 74 minutes of digital
audio, the CD can hold up to 650 megabytes of computer
data, 100 quality photographs, or even 74 minutes of
full-motion video and audio.
In fact, many CDs offer all three.
However, the product's dominance is threatened by the
emergence of numerous competitors, particularly the
The MD is "magneto-optical", which means it is
encoded by magnetically aligning crystals heated in the
focus of an intense laser. The MD's glory is it combines
CD sound quality with recordability - up to a million
times on a single disk.
You can re-record on CD-RWs, but this requires a
computer to record, and standard audio players can
rarely read the discs.
MDs, by contrast, are hi-fi components, with hi-fi
level sleekness and reliability. They come in two
lengths: 60 minutes, and 74 minutes (or double that if
recording in mono), the 74 being the length of a
standard CD. But a CD can hold 650 MB of digital audio,
while an MD only holds 140 MB. So just how does Sony
manage to squeeze all that music on to a MiniDisc?
By using ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding).
This compression format follows a perceptual model of
human hearing which ensures an audibly identical copy of
the original. The higher the ATRAC version, the better
the sound quality. Advanced ATRAC can make MDs sound
better than CDs.
Adding to the MD's aura of excellence, almost every
portable player has shock-resistant memory control. This
means you can ride the train, cycle or even jog with
Quite how the MD ever came into being is as
mysterious as central China's white mud pyramids. MD
guru Eric Woudenberg, editor of MiniDisc Community
Portal (minidisc.org), said Sony began developing it
shortly before it appeared in the early-1980s.
At that time pre-recorded compact cassette sales
"were tapering off", and there seemed an opportunity to
develop a successor to the cassette, filling the role of
a rugged, compact, portable, and recordable audio medium
for general consumer use.
"MiniDisc addressed the consumer-recording need
perfectly, fixed all the foibles of cassette, and
allowed Sony to create cool and useful equipment," Mr
He praised the company's success in pursuing "a
vision of something wholly new, not simply an increment
on what has come before".
However, at first the new product bombed. Reasons
included initial high cost and that blank disks were
hard to come by, while consumers were reluctant to adopt
a new product so soon after the advent of the CD and in
a market piled with competing digital formats.
Now these problems have faded, the only minus is the
lack of integration with the everyday computer
infrastructure - you cannot easily hitch an MD player to
a computer and read and write the compressed data
The reason is Sony has purposely made an audio/data
firewall in the format (presumably to protect copyright
holders). You can record to MiniDisc with an analogue
cable, or for better quality, with a digital optical
But the firewall is by no means obstructing sales.
With a little help from Claudia Schiffer's presence in
MD advertisements, demand for the product has expanded
rapidly. Although it may be too early to sing a requiem
for the CD, its time is clearly close at hand.