- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2007

EINDHOVEN, Netherlands (AP)

It was Aug. 17, 1982, and row upon row of palm-sized plates with a rainbow sheen began rolling off an assembly line near Hanover, Germany. An engineering marvel at the time, today they are recognizable instantly as compact discs, a product that turned 25 years old on Friday — and whose future increasingly is in doubt in an age of IPods and digital downloads.

Those first CDs contained Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and would sound equally sharp if played today, says Holland’s Royal Philips Electronics NV, which jointly developed the CD with Sony Corp. of Japan.

The recording industry thrived in the 1990s as music fans replaced their aging cassettes and vinyl LPs with compact discs, eventually making CDs the most popular album format.

The CD still accounts for the majority of the music industry’s recording revenues, but its sales have been in a free fall since peaking early this decade, in part because of the rise of online file-sharing but also as consumers spend more of their leisure dollars on other entertainment purchases, such as DVDs and video games.

As music labels slash wholesale prices and experiment with extras to revive the aging format, it’s hard to imagine there ever was a day without CDs.

Yet it was a risky technical endeavor to attempt to bring digital audio to the masses, says Pieter Kramer, head of the optical research group at Philips‘ labs in the Netherlands in the 1970s.

“When we started, there was nothing in place,” Mr. Kramer says during an interview at Philips‘ corporate museum in Eindhoven.

The proposed semiconductor chips needed for CD players were to be the most advanced ever used in a consumer product. The lasers were still on the drawing board when the companies teamed up in 1979.

In 1980, researchers published what became known as the Red Book, containing the original CD standards as well as specifying which patents were held by Philips and which by Sony. Philips had developed the bulk of the disc and laser technology, while Sony contributed the digital encoding that allowed for smooth, error-free playback. Philips still licenses out the Red Book and its later incarnations, notably for the CD-ROM for storing computer software and other data.

The CD’s design drew inspiration from vinyl records: Like the grooves on a record, CDs are engraved with a spiral of tiny pits that are scanned by a laser — the equivalent of a record player’s needle. The reflected light is encoded into millions of 0’s and 1s: a digital file.

Because the pits are covered with plastic and the laser’s light doesn’t wear them down, the CD never loses sound quality.

Legends abound about how the size of the CD was chosen: Some said it matched a Dutch beer coaster; others believe a famous conductor or Sony executive wanted it just long enough for Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Mr. Kramer says the decision evolved from “long conversations around the table” about which play length made the most sense.

The jump into mass production in Germany was a milestone for the CD, and by 1982, the companies announced that their product was ready for market. Both began selling players that fall, although the machines didn’t hit U.S. markets until the next spring.

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