- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

James T. Russell invented the digital compact disc to listen to music, but his CDs revolutionized technology.

Mr. Russell said that he thinks the use of CDs for music will inevitably decline but that the format will live on for expensive programs because consumers value the security of a disc.

Born in Bremerton, Wash., in 1931, Mr. Russell went to Reed College in Portland, Ore., and graduated with a degree in physics in 1953. He then joined General Electric labs in Richland, Wash.

An avid music listener, Mr. Russell became unsatisfied with the audio quality of his vinyl phonograph records and sought to invent a better music recording system.

Mr. Russell said that if the recording industry is able to organize a proper future for selling music online, the audio disc will go extinct. He invented the digital compact disc in the late 1960s after joining the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of Battelle Memorial Institute in Richland.

“I didn’t originally foresee that [music] was going to cost as much as it does,” he said. “I really think the record industry is being a bit backward in how they view marketing for music. I don’t think it should cost as much.”

Mr. Russell said that the current cost for audio CDs will force more marketing online unless album prices are cut to a more reasonable level.

Stating that hard drives have failed to create a permanent archive for storage, Mr. Russell said he thinks that some music will transition over time from the CD to a form of music DVD, because the quality of the CD is not as clear as he originally envisioned.

Mr. Russell said he doesn’t think Apple’s new MacBook Air, which is sold without an optical CD/DVD drive, signals that CDs are on the way out.

“It’s a marketing strategy on the part of Apple,” he said. “I’m not discouraging it. A good many people don’t need a disc drive for many things they do. That’s fine. … In some respects it makes it sexier.”

Pleased that Blu-Ray technology will make the DVD market more robust and increase the number of discs manufactured, he said that the new format will extend the life of the DVD.

“If [Sony] had asked me, I would have suggested some different ways of doing it,” Mr. Russell said. “Certainly, the Blu-Ray was more of a technological tour de force. Whether it turns out to have more trouble … I do not know.”

Companies that store information online will increasingly become an attractive market, Mr. Russell said, though he thinks people will always want personal files and financial records in hand, giving life to the disc.

Crusading for the environment, Mr. Russell once envisioned that newspapers and magazines would one day be delivered by disc, eliminating the need to cut down trees to produce paper. He now recognizes that the Internet has largely given life to the next form of news delivery.

In his eyes, all it would take to complete the transition would be a national increase in Internet bandwidth. But, he argued, physical media will be around for a while to come.

With 54 U.S. patents behind him, Mr. Russell said he thought the disc format would only perish when the hard drive is replaced.

“With the present range of hardware, the optical disc is not going to disappear. Period. It’s a requirement,” he said.

Harrison Keely

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