Digital cinema pioneer QUALCOMM became the first company to commit to a date for the commercial launch of its new technology at the Cinema Expo convention in Amsterdam this week.

QUALCOMM said it expects to launch and roll out its first generation digital cinema delivery system within the next 12 months. It will be the first company to make all, or any part, of digital cinema technology available to distributors and exhibitors. Up until now, only prototype technology and projectors have been used in the 18 field tests carried out around the world over the last 12 months.

QUALCOMM stressed that its first generation system will work in tandem with traditional 35mm film. And director of international marketing Carol Hahn, speaking at the digital cinema seminar, was at pains to stress to exhibitors that installing the equipment will not be the upheaval they may think it is: "This system attempts to use as much as possible of today's equipment in theatres. It is not a replacement for your new installations. This is NOT a radical change."

QUALCOMM, which recently pacted with Carlton Communications-owned Technicolor to build an end-to-end digital delivery system, will then roll out a second generation system around 2002 and a third generation in 2004. It is this third generation system, due to be deployed in four years time, that will truly be digital cinema. "This system will change your theatres - you will have no film projector and it will be fully programmable," said Hahn.

Meanwhile Phil Barlow, executive vice president of Walt Disney Corporation, emphasised Disney's growing commitment to the digital future: "This year we had 40% of our slate available in a digital format. Next year we expect it to be more than 60% and in 2002 it hope it will be 100%."

However technical standards organisation SMPTE's first standards and recommendations for this industry will not be announced until the exhibitor convention ShowEast in Atlantic City in the US in October.

Kodak's cinema operations manager (Europe) Denis Kelly, estimates digital penetration by 2005 will be 5,000 screens of an expected 125,000 first run worldwide screens. But he commented that the quality of digital cinema is still not good enough - and won't be until it surpasses 35mm film quality. Kelly also added that equipment costs will have to decrease by 50% if it is to be rapidly adopted.