Ricoh Develops Laser That Reads Both Blu-Ray, HD DVD Discs

Japan's Ricoh Co. said Thursday it will be ready to supply an optical component that reads both HD DVD and Blu-ray discs next year — a move that could diffuse the battle between rivals Toshiba and Sony over next-generation DVD formats.

Toshiba Corp. and its allies have been pitting the HD DVD format against Blu-ray, an alternative standard pushed by Sony Corp (SNE)., raising fears of a repeat of the VHS-versus-Beta battle over the format for video tape recorders in the early 1980s.

Both HD DVD and Blu-ray technology can deliver dazzling high-definition video and can store much more data than today's DVDs, but related hardware has so far been incompatible.

Tokyo-based Ricoh's new component, however, uses a diffraction plate designed to adjust the laser so that light focuses properly for each disc format, allowing a drive to read all formats, according to company spokesman Satoshi Aoki.

"Ricoh is the first in the world to announce this hybrid technology," Aoki said. "We believe it's groundbreaking."

The component will initially only read discs, though Ricoh hopes to improve its laser so it writes in all formats, Aoki said.

The office equipment maker is presenting the technology at the International Optoelectronics Exhibition outside Tokyo, which kicked off Thursday. The company will be ready to deliver components to electronics makers by the end of 2007, Aoki said.

Talk of the potential of a dual-format drive and hints of its development by various companies have circulated for some time. And though Ricoh can now claim a first-of-a-kind hybrid technology, some analysts are skeptical of its chances for success in a market where consumer demand has yet to solidify for either HD DVD or Blu-ray products.

"The market potential for the product is not very large," said Wolfgang Schlichting, an analyst with market researcher IDC. "The verdict is still out — both formats still have the chance of becoming dominant, and companies need to focus on products that are price-driven and sell today."

A key barrier, Schlichting said, is that any product with the dual-format feature will likely be very expensive.

Electronics companies would have to pay additional royalty costs to incorporate both formats. Also, unless production levels grow significantly to lower costs, makers would be hard-pressed to reduce retail prices enough to attract more customers, Schlichting said.

For now, Toshiba and Sony's race to bring competing hardware to the market is set to continue.

Toshiba said Thursday it would postpone the sale of the world's first HD DVD recorder, the RD-A1, by about two weeks to July 27 from July 14 due to a production delay.

Because of problems in procuring some parts for the recorder, Toshiba will not have enough units ready for a nationwide release until the later date, according to company spokesman Keisuke Omori.

The machine combines an HD DVD burner with a 1-terabyte hard disk and can record and store up to 130 hours of high-definition broadcasts. HD DVD players are already available, but the RD-A1 will be the first model that can record disks.

Sony has also been selling Blu-ray recorders in Japan since 2003, but prices have been high and uptake low.

The new Toshiba recorder carries a suggested price tag of $3,470. The electronics maker hopes to sell 10,000 recorders by the end of 2006, according to Omori.

Toshiba launched HD DVD players in Japan in March, and in the United States in April. Sony plans to begin selling personal computers equipped with Blu-ray drives later this month.