A brief history of the MiniDisc

Originally published at: A brief history of the MiniDisc | Boing Boing


The aspect of minidisc that always puzzled me is that (despite it being a rewriteable digital medium from day one; and Sony doing a lot of small-form-factor PCs) there was never any push(at least not a serious one; I’m sure some enterprising hobbyist figured out how to use a digital audio storage mechanism that supported lossless transfers as an arbitrary data storage device with about 10 minutes) to see it used as as a data storage medium.

Back before cheap flash memory devoured all the assorted small storage standards; and back when 11-12in laptops were really exotic stuff that you mostly needed to go to Japanese PC OEMs for, a PC that could use minidisks as mass storage would have been seriously cool.


Many years ago, I got a gig as sound engineer on a friend’s low budget indie film because I had a minidisc setup for digital recording. Good times!


I think the reason is a niche for that didn’t exist. The cost was high and storage capacity was low. For small storage needs like daily use, floppy disks at the time were sufficient and a tiny fraction of the cost. For larger needs like backup, MD wasn’t nearly large enough. 8mm tape was the choice at the time for that. So for data, there wasn’t a price/performance niche that made sense. Zip and Jazz drives had the same problem years later. While they found some use in little niches, like video production people sharing huge files, that was mostly it. Zip and Jazz had slightly more success because file sizes had outpaced floppies by then and networking hadn’t caught up yet so there was a brief need for better sneakernet.

Back to the OP video, a lot of people cover MiniDisc in this same breathless tone- as though it was a unicorn crazy idea that Sony did one time. That’s a misunderstanding of Sony’s history. Their entire history is one of repeatedly inventing media formats and hoping it becomes a standard and sticks. It doesn’t work often (as it did with CDs) but you only need one of those successes every 30 years or so to make a lot of money. Memory Sticks, CDs (with Phillips), PSP discs, Betamax, BluRay, MiniDiscs, etc. Sony is the company that invents media formats as part of their business model. MiniDisc zealots just forget about all the other stuff. :grin:


Indeed. And while Betamax was technically superior to VHS, the licensing costs for VHS were much, MUCH cheaper, which is why Sony lost that war. Same with Memory Sticks, and quite likely MD.

for data storage at that time? you had a wide variety of formats to choose from: “mammoth” (an 8mm variant from the Digital8 video format), DLT, 4mm DDS/DAT, various iterations of QIC, Travan, and everything previous.

In today’s modern age and capacity requirements? If you are still even using tape, you have two choices: LTO and TS1160. But who uses tape anymore? (We stopped using tape for anything non-archival a year ago; the backup landscape has changed immensely in the last ten years.


It seemed like every yard sale I went to in the early 00’s had a minidisc recorder/player for sale. They had their benefits: at the time it was the cheapest way to record live performances in anything close to hi-fi (although it depended on your mics and which brand/model recorder.) Even back then good Sony portable cassette recorders (WM-D6c for example, the bootleggers favorite) were going for $100 used but you could get a newer minidisc recorder for $10 anywhere.

A friend of mine had one of the minidisc 4-tracks and it was great, far superior to the cassette 4 and 8 tracks.


There was, directly from Sony. MD Data.

The mistake was that Sony launched it as a separate format, and pretty late. They stuck it in both external and internal drive bays, as well as in camcorders and digital cameras. I think there were a couple of music players that could pull MP3s off of them.

Billed as a replacement for Floppies, but it launched in a context of Zip drives and just before flash storage like Compact Flash became practical. It wasn’t in practice any cheaper than any of those options, but the capacity was much lower than the Zip drives and it’s competitors.

Mass storage it wasn’t. Early Minidiscs held 140mb, the later high capacity version topped at 650mb. So it kinda topped out at CDR sizes.

And despite being the same disk and the same drive as regular Mini Disc they weren’t interchangeable.

I think if they had launched with regular mini disc having that functionality it might have succeeded a little better. But by the time they got to it they’d already been passed by.

There was a later descendant format, Hi-MD that had 1gb capacities. But it didn’t launch till 2004 and wasn’t compatible with MD. Also wasn’t geared at storage. It was mostly positioned as a replacement for DAT for professional recording, but that was already being eclipsed by solid state recorders at the time.

And by the time Zip and Jazz drives were out, CD burners were already pretty common. While both had disks larger than a CDR, even the early small disks were expensive vs a CD. And most people didn’t really need more than a CD offered.

Betamax, which didn’t work as a consumer format. But spawned what was probably the single longest lived family of professional video tape formats. DAT, the last significant professional audio tape format. Hi8/Digital8 which had a pretty good lock on the home camcorder market for a good 10 years. Also DV which Sony owned a piece of, and was a major Digital8 competitor in home and prosumer spaces, and the big Beta competitor in professional spaces across the same time period.


I think the big advantage of them was that they didn’t skip. I still have a portable MD player but the software for ripping CD’s hasn’t been supported for over a decade. I was living in Japan when they were popular and I thought it was a sure thing to take off in the US. Even had a MD player for my car in California, and of course my window was smashed and it was stolen. It was probably difficult for the thief to get rid of since hardly anybody used MD’s in the states. Anyhow, they kind of did me a favor since my insurance replaced it with a normal, more practical CD player.


BBC radio news reporters used MiniDisc recorders connected to big fluffy broadcast-quality microphones.


For me, the killer app was in car decks - no worry about fingerprints like CD, no risk of tape mangling. But it launched too early, with a version of ATRAC that just wasn’t good enough… and for some reason, the quality of pre-recorded disks was just lousy. By the time ATRAC was improved, momentum was lost and Napster was pumping out free MP3s in all directions.


As a live-music and interview format, MD was terrific–a compact, stable, and physically sturdy medium with very good fidelity. Downside was the cost of the disks and the locked-down compression/storage scheme that required Sony’s proprietary software for digital copying.

I did a great deal of field interviewing and quite a bit of music recording, starting with cassette and moving to DAT before MD showed up, and it was the best-that-far. I loved the quality and open format of portable DAT, but when its tiny, delicate mechanism failed, it was expensive and difficult to get repaired. MD and Hi-MD were mechanical but sturdier, and Hi-MD allowed PCM recording. There were a couple of shirt-pocket-size, AA battery-powered units that were ideal field recorders, with respectable microphones. I stayed with them until I discovered the Olympus LS series of solid-state recorders with similar feature-sets–and no moving parts beyond the buttons.

My archives are full of MD disks that I haven’t bothered to migrate (as I have with my DATs) because the MD recorders still work.


Lived the MD!

Had a Walkman style one and a car stereo unit as well…

They were very popular when I was in film school in the early to mid 00s, even though they were already sorta out of date. As a cheaper alternative to DAT. MD was not lossless or as high quality as DAT, and there was no XLR hookup on the portable recorders. But it was digital and it was about as close as you were going to get for cheap. DAT decks and early hard drive and flash based all digital recorders were pretty pricey.

Our equipment room exclusively issued MD recorders to Freshman and Sophomores, you needed permission from your professor to check out a DAT recorder as an undergrad. A blank Minidisc was a LOT cheaper a blank DAT tape.

And everything was a lot smaller.

Thing is by that time you were already starting to see Compact Flash based portable recorders, and by the time I graduated that same TASCAM portable audio recorder with internal flash storage you still see all over was already a thing.

I had a mini hard drive based MP3 player that could be used as an audio recorder in high school, and just used that through college. It was easier to deal with and sounded better, and it was actually smaller.

Just a lot of the better recording stuff with Minidisc never made it out of Japan or came out too late. It was never completely professional quality, but it had this brief window where it was a nice solution for anything were budget was a bigger concern than quality. All sorts of DIY, institutional and student niches. Or if you weren’t broadcasting in high quality digital anyway, then it was the smallest thing you could get by the crate for the price.

But about a minute later you could record a better quality, easier to deal with file on something you already had. And you could get the better features and quality for regular people money not long after that.


Still shaking my head at how Sony hugely goofed up by not having the PlayStation Portable run on MiniDisc. In particular by being recordable, it enabled saved games, high scores, settings & preferences etc to be stored on the disc. It would also have enabled Sony to make the PSP a MD music player, reinforcing the MD format and making the PSP an all-in-one entertainment device on the go, the way the PS2 and PS3 were being positioned as for the living room.

Instead, Sony invented yet ANOTHER proprietary format – the so-called Universal Media Disc (UMD) that was only ever used for the PSP – thus undermining MD and undermining the PSP both.


Mini Disc had already pretty much failed outside Japan at that point, and it would be pretty much wrapped up completely a few years later.

It was already well behind in capacity and functionality.

UMD seems to have been a least partially meant as an update/replacement and it was clearly a descendant. And then HI-MD as the professional descendant.

Minidisc itself didn’t really have the capacity and feature set necessary to do what Sony wanted to use the UMD for. So you were gonna get an incompatible derivative one way or the other.

It’s just no one really jumped on.

The iPOD had existed for a number of years, MP3s were already thing, Steam launched around the same time. The HD Transition was going down. And thumb drives and flash storage were already common and pretty affordable.

Blueray was already a thing, already in their consoles and had like 100 times the capacity of a UMD or Hi-MD.

A physical disk in a carrier, that didn’t deal with otherwise portable files wasn’t really going to catch or stick around long in that context.

So they pretty much did put Minidisc in there, it’s just the existing Minidisc needed an update.

But you’re also misunderstanding how media formats and Sony’s business model here works.

The entire idea was to be proprietary, the money was in getting other companies to license the tech. And all of these formats have always needed regular updates and improvements. A lot of the time the long term money is in those descendant formats.

MD wasn’t one of their big successes. But even the legendary “loss” in the famous VHS/Betamax format war. Everything else that came out Beta is still making Sony money.

Sony was never gonna get that kind of play out Minidisc spinoffs, cause by that point physical media in general was headed out the door. And flash storage was starting to eat everything else but hard disc for portable storage.

Sony’s bigger dumb shit on this front at the time was stuff like using a proprietary number pins in their fire wire ports, proprietary lube in the camera tapes. And the whole memory stick thing. It’s a not as good, much more expensive flash storage card that we won’t license out.

All of them were more about lock in than selling a format.

I had an MD Data drive in the 90’s –– used for backup until I got the growing Zip Drive. I actually restored my hard drive from them once after a crash.

Pluses - tiny, nicely made hardware, 140mb per disc

Minus - slow write speed, nobody else used it, data discs were slightly different format from MD audio discs.

I still love MiniDiscs - was always the best way to record CDs borrowed from friends or the library. When you got tired of them you could just reuse the disc. Generally I never made the move to MP3 and have the bulk of my music on CDs still, and actually don’t like keeping music on my computer.

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It seems like every online conversation about MiniDisc starts with: “hey did you ever hear of this crazy obscure format?” followed by: “Yes. I and everyone I know liked and used MiniDiscs for years”.

As far as I can tell, MD was as successful as it could possibly have been, given when it was released. I imagine it would have gradually replaced cassettes, if both formats hadn’t been rendered pointless. Sure, MD could have worked with computers in a more useful way, if Sony had allowed that, but only once physical media were visibly doomed anyway.

(IDK if people remember this, but Sony were engaged in scorched-earth warfare against online music at the time in question, e.g. pressing albums with literal rootkits to try to stop you ripping the content to mp3)


It was a nice format. It’s just had the wrong timing at every possible move.

It’s sort of the last hurrah for stuff developed as computer storage is a different thing from home media. And the LP for home, tape for cars thing that’d been going for decades.

So every step the format took, the ground had already shifted or was about to.

I never got into MD, but it’s kinda fascinating how it was perpetually almost ahead of it’s time. Like it would have been the future if all that other shit didn’t happen.

It’s like it fell out an alternate timeline where the internet still sucks, we still bring small files to the office on borderline disposable discs, and getting that new album into your car is a bit tricky.

Replacing cassettes was the point, and from what I remember cassettes kept selling pretty well through Minidics early existence.

Sony had tried to supersede cassettes with the DAT, it failed in part because it was too expensive. MD was the more affordable try 2. In the meantime Philips had put out DCC, which also failed.

By the time they got MD out it wouldn’t be too long till CD burners were a thing. And it turns out people were fine with CDs as portable pre-recorded music.

The even bigger problem is Sony couldn’t get other record companies on board for releasing pre-recorded music. No home media format has succeeded in capturing the market long term without that kind of support.

The thing that made cassettes as big a success as they were is you had that and home taping, and recording of various sorts in one cross compatible in everyone’s house format.


Betamax, which didn’t work as a consumer format.

It certainly did, for a time. Video rental stores in the early-mid 1980s had sections for both VHS and Beta movies. It’s only in the late 1980s and later that VHS conquered the consumer market,


Betamax sales peaked in 1984 with a little over 2 million recorders sold. VHS sold almost 5 million recorders in the same year.

IIRC Beta hit around 20 or 30% of the market, although it was more competitive in some individual markets. It also had it’s biggest sales years before movie home release was the main use for these things. Plus there were other formats in the mess, like Video 2000 in Europe.

But from what I recall VHS pulled to a early lead and just sorta stayed there. Even Sony started selling VHS equipment long before they stopped selling Betamax. Apparently they made players till like 2002.

So not quite a decade as second best by a lot isn’t really what these companies shoot for with this, and it’s not great ground for saying that Beta really worked as a consumer format.

But it is a fair point. They did sell a good number of Betamax devices for a while there.

But more importantly I don’t think you can really call Beta as a whole a failure. Sony is still selling Beta derivatives in the professional space. VHS is long gone, and it never had much presence in that market at all.

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