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Friday, August 17, 2007
The CD is 25 years old

When the first CDs rolled off the presses at the Philips factory near Hannover, Germany on August 17, 1982, nobody realized these newfangled compact discs would revolutionise entertainment.

"In the late seventies and early eighties we never imagined that one day, the computing and entertainment industries would also opt for the digital CD to store the growing volume of data for computer programs and movies," said Piet Kramer, one of the Philips engineers who developed the CD.

By the 1990s, CDs had not only nearly pushed out vinyl records but also paved the way for other uses of the digital disc, like the CD-rom (compact disc read-only memory) and DVDs (digital video discs).

In the last 25 years, more than 200 billion CDs have been sold worldwide, Dutch electronics giant Philips -- who invented the CD and developed it together with Sony -- estimates.

"It started out quite small as many revolutions do," Paul Solleveld of the Dutch organisation for the entertainment industry NVPI told AFP.

Initially Philips hit upon the idea of digital recording for video and developed a 12-inch (30-centimetre) size golden CD to play movies, but the video disc never caught on. It was only after it flopped that Philips engineers suggested making a smaller digital disc with only sound -- and the CD as we know it was born.

The beginnings were indeed humble: the first CDs to be pressed were "The Visitors" by Swedish pop group ABBA, the top-selling artists of Philips record label Polygram, and a classical recording by Herbert von Karajan conducting "An Alpine Symphony" by Richard Strauss.

In the early days, Philips released a limited number of CD titles mainly of classical music. The idea was that classical fans would better appreciate the superior sound quality.

Classical music lovers were also generally more affluent than pop and rock music fans, and Philips thought they would be more inclined to pay the price for the more expensive CDs -- and the very expensive CD-players, whose first models cost some 2,000 Dutch guilders (around 1,500 euros or 2,000 dollars at today's rate, taking into account inflation).

Their hunch was right. The superior quality of the CD revealed dimensions that up to then had been hidden on standard viny recordings.

"When Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau recorded one of the first CDs for Polygram we discovered that he was grunting and panting while playing. Before on vinyl you didn't hear that but on CD it was crystal clear," said Frank van den Berg, a former member of the Polygram CD development task force.

For the first couple of years CDs were slow to take off but in 1985 one of the most famous groups of the era, British rock band "Dire Straits," adopted the CD and released their "Brothers in Arms" album, one of the first fully digital recordings.

It went on to become the first album to sell over a million copies on CD and firmly established the CD as the music format for years to come.

"By the late eighties CD sales took off and hit a high point in sales in 1991 but since then they have been dropping," Solleveld said.

Some wonder if the CD will make it to its 30th anniversary, with the surge in digital music downloads that are put directly onto MP3 music players like the popular IPod.

In the last 10 years CD sales have been dropping while digital download sales are rising rapidly. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), digital sales will account for a quarter of all worldwide music sales by 2010.

Nonetheless Solleveld is optimistic that the CD will make it to 30 and beyond.

"To some extent the CD has been replaced by downloads on MP3 players but I think there will always be a place for the CD," he said.

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