Tokyo -- The iVDR cartridge drive, a removable hard-drive format designed to store and transfer digital content in a secure manner, is seeing its first commercial rollouts in Japan now that the arduous specification development process has been completed. But with a host of competing formats scrambling for design wins, sources said, the standard needs to hit the ground running.
In April, Hitachi Ltd. introduced TV sets with a cartridge slot for insertion of an iVDR drive (iVDR is short for "information versatile disk that is removable"). The same month, China Central Television began field trials of iVDR-based broadcasting devices, according to sources who attended a meeting of the iVDR Consortium last month.
A group of eight Japanese companies, including Canon, Hitachi, Pioneer, Sanyo Electric and Sharp, proposed iVDR in 2002. The format "has now entered a commercial phase," said Toshiaki Hioki, senior manager of the Sanyo Digital Systems Research Center and the iVDR Consortium chairman. While the format is not intended to be the sole available removable medium, he said, its "large capacity and high-speed data rate" should win it a central role.
The capacity of iVDR cartridge drives is scalable to accommodate further evolution of drive technologies. Equipped with a serial ATA interface, the drive can achieve a theoretical data rate of 3 Gbits/second.
"The availability of HD content is growing rapidly both in Japan and in the rest of the world, and iVDR is the best medium for storing that large volume of content with secure copyright protection," said Hioki.
A number of Hitachi units, including Hitachi Global Storage Technologies and Hitachi Maxell Ltd., worked together to develop iVDR-equipped LCD and plasma TV sets. Hitachi has introduced five models with built-in 3.5-inch, 250-Gbyte iVDR hard drives as well as slots for removable iVDR drive cartridges. Hitachi Global Storage supplies 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch iVDR disk drives, and Hitachi Maxell sells 80- and 160-Gbyte cartridge drives.
Although the SATA interface is theoretically capable of 3 Gbits/s, actual data rates are lower in the first iVDR products. Hitachi's iVDR drives currently achieve 540 Mbits/s, since the data has to go through an encryption and compression/decompression process. Even so, that's 15 times faster than the 36-Mbit/s original data rates of the Blu-ray Disk and HD-DVD optical formats, against which iVDR may compete.
Content protection is a sticking point for all storage media. For iVDR, consortium members Hitachi, Pioneer, Sanyo and Sharp developed the Security Architecture for Intelligent Attachment (Safia) digital-rights management (DRM) system.
Safia features AES-128 content encryption and public-key infrastructure (PKI)-based mutual authentication. Protected drives incorporate a tamper-resistant module that stores all security-related data, such as the security keys and the usage rules. The data cannot be accessed without a Safia certificate, and data transfers are possible only between secure iVDR fixed or cartridge drives, according to Hirofumi Sukeda, manager of Hitachi's Contents Access Business Center.
The Association for Promotion of Digital Broadcasting in Japan has approved Safia as the official DRM system for removable hard drives. Japan's Association of Radio Industries and Broadcasters has also endorsed Safia. The four developers of the DRM system formed the Safia Licensing Group in 2005 to license the scheme.
Positioning iVDR as "a bridge medium," Hitachi believes the iVDR cartridge can further expand the role of built-in hard drives in TVs. Users can use the cartridges to expand capacity, or each member of a family can have a personal hard drive for storing favorite content, noted Makoto Ebata, group general manager and CEO of the company's consumer business unit.
Bound for China
It was also reported at the May consortium meeting that Kokusai Seika Co. Ltd., an Osaka-based based company focused on professional broadcasting systems for the Chinese market, had sold China Central TV on a proposed iVDR-based system for a programming production chain ranging from cameras to editing and archival systems. Seika president Go Kaishin told the meeting that China Central TV adopted the proposed system in April and that Seika will start delivering equipment in July.
Alps Electric Co. Ltd., which has started volume production of iVDR loading mechanisms, is supplying mechanisms to Seika for the trials.
The iVDR Consortium's roster has expanded from the eight original members to 50. It counts automakers Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motors Co. Ltd. as executive members. Drive maker Seagate Technology LLC is also an executive member, and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. is listed as a general member. Missing from the roster, however, are consumer giants Matsushita Electric Indus- trial, Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp.
Like most standards looking to gain a foothold, iVDR initially faces the classic chicken-and-egg problem. Automakers' adoption of iVDR for in-car entertainment systems would be a coup for the standard, for example, but a Toyota spokesman noted that car companies will likely wait until "iVDR penetrates widely" before designing it into autos.
Consortium executive member Seagate believes iVDR-equipped set-top boxes will be a prerequisite to the format's U.S. market penetration, according to a spokesman for that company. The spokesman noted that iVDR has advantages over optical disks in terms of capacity, data rate and security, but that optical drives have the upper hand in cost and durability. It will be tough to catch up with optical drives in the market because the iVDR camp is building a business model from scratch, he added.
The format could also face competition from another hard-drive contender. In April, Toshiba launched a TV model on the Japanese market that's equipped with a slot for a removable hard-disk drive (HDD) cartridge. Hard drives equipped with the eSATA interface, an external extension of serial ATA, can be connected to the Toshiba set.
"We chose to use commodity HDDs for cost and capacity reasons," a Toshiba spokeswoman said, adding that the security system is proprietary.
Toshiba says it has verified that 13 existing HDD models from I-O Data Device Inc. can be used as external drives with its new TVs.
I-O Data Device also has produced iVDR-compliant offerings. Thus far, the peripherals vendor reports having sold about 6,000 iVDR drive cartridges equipped with a USB adapter for PCs as a test vehicle for the format.
Aside from Hitachi, however, no other consumer electronics company has announced plans for commercial launch. The crucial question for iVDR is when that will occur.