TECHNOLOGY: Bridging the DVD Divide

TECHNOLOGY: Bridging the DVD Divide

The reliability and enormous storage capacity of digital video disc (DVD) technology, combined with steadily decreasing price points, means that DVD drives are fast becoming the industry norm in both PC and notebook systems.

In addition, some of the biggest names in the IT business have put their collective might behind rewritable DVD technologies. The trouble is, though, so have their competitors. This has resulted in competing technologies vying for the ultimate prize of becoming an industry standard. It's a battle reminiscent of the VHS/Beta saga, made all the more complicated by the increasing crossover between computers and entertainment. And like all good format wars, it may not be the best technology that triumphs.

For the moment, just helping customers get their heads around the nomenclature is complicated enough. DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD+RW - it's a daunting array of terms to the uninitiated. Yet the real challenge lies in choosing between the three rewritable technologies - DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM.

DVD-RAM is the oldest of these technologies and is primarily used for data backup. DVD-RW is far more compatible with existing systems - most drives and players produced in the last two years will read DVD-RW media. Both DVD-RAM and DVD-RW have been approved by the DVD Forum, a group established in 1997 that which dictates the way data is distributed on DVD. The Forum has more than 200 members worldwide, including Panasonic, Pioneer and Toshiba.

DVD+RW, the third rewritable format, was developed by the DVD+RW Alliance. While there is not much difference between +RW and -RW formats, each has its pros and cons. DVD-RW technology incorporates protection mechanisms and has a high level of compatibility with existing DVD products. DVD+RW has better support for both long and short file formats. The format does not have the support of the DVD Forum, but it does have the backing of some high-profile companies such as Ricoh, Sony and Yamaha.

Of course, the 64-thousand-dollar question is whether all three technologies will be able to survive in the marketplace. "What is going to determine the outcome is who is the best marketer of the hardware - not necessarily which technology is better," says Verbatim Australia marketing communications coordinator Timmi Gibson. "Once one format reaches a critical mass over the other, the loser will probably die away. So whoever throws the most, or perhaps the cleverest, marketing dollars at the market and achieves critical penetration out there in consumerland is going to be the winner. Of course, at the moment, both camps are trying to achieve that. It's going to be an interesting race!"

The parallels with the VHS/Beta race lie in DVD's success in the home theatre market. In that earlier competition, companies developed their own technology to gain a competitive edge and pre-recorded media played a major role in the ultimate triumph of VHS. It's a different story with DVD rewritable technologies, however, because DVD players are already entrenched in consumer electronics. At this stage, the big issue is compatibility with existing systems.

"It is true that there is a bit of a format war, but users just need to look for the most compatible format for them," says Chris Lau, group product manager at Panasonic Australia.

"The trouble is, none of these technologies are compatible with each other and the compatibility of each technology with home DVD players varies widely. Most people buy burners for the DVD-R aspect and for applications such as home movies. It makes sense to keep everything digital - these days you are hardly likely to convert everything back to VHS."

To get around some of these compatibility issues, vendors have launched combination drives that incorporate different DVD formats. "We've already seen the combo drives become standard on medium to high-end notebooks," says Toshiba marketing manager Mark Whittard. "The way we incorporate the drive means it is so flexible you can use it for everything. What we've see is that CD is pretty much dead in the marketplace. By the end of this year, we will see combo drives at entry-level price points as well."

Panasonic has put its R&D weight behind the DVD-RAM, DVD-RW formats and in September will launch a multimedia combination drive that incorporates DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, DVD-R and CD-RW technologies as well as DVD-Audio, an additional format that competes with Sony's Super Audio technology. "Ideally, you would have a drive that would burn everything," Lau says.

Why don't we yet? The answer is largely political. In theory, all three rewritable technologies could be incorporated into the one device, but the division between the -RW and +RW camps is at the point where it will probably be a long time before such a device makes it to market. By then it will probably be too late. Consumers will have made their choice.

Contingency plans abound, but at the moment no one is prepared to make a call as to which format will win out.

It is generally expected that DVD-RAM will endure as a data storage medium. But given the similarities between the plus and minus formats, it is difficult to see both persisting in the market.

Nevertheless, Sony believes this could happen.

The vendor supports both DVD+RW and DVD-RW and is a member of the DVD Forum, but it was also one of the companies that broke away to develop the +RW format.

"We support both -R and -RW, but we don't think the format is the be-all and end-all because it was designed for video and therefore works best with long file formats," says Sony product manager for optical storage, Gordon Kerr. "You can't just erase part of the disk, so it is limited in application and therefore predominantly for use in the consumer space. It is the perfect replacement for VHS recording, but for data use it is not as efficient."

So Sony teamed with HP, Yamaha, Ricoh and Mitsubishi Chemical to produce a ubiquitous format that could be used like a floppy.

"We expect both formats will continue to live with each other and might even merge at some stage," Kerr says. "It could come down to the cost of the media. I think DVD+RW can suit the whole market but there is no reason why DVD-RW should disappear."

According to Verbatim's Gibson, the best use of marketing dollars is more likely to have an impact on which technology endures. "If you count DVD-RAM out (and you can for the consumer market), then the media prices for the different formats are much the same," she says.

Verbatim is another company that belongs to both DVD associations. It also distributes Pioneer DVD-R and DVD-RW drives.

"But that's only because of availability, reliability and cost," Gibson says. "We may well do some +R/+RW units in the future."

Toshiba's Whittard believes the market will make its own decision on the technology, regardless of marketing. "The IT market is naturally very techno-savvy," he says. "They'll want the best technology available rather than the strongest marketing message."

For the moment, there is no clear winning format, and vendors are still pushing their own technologies. But it won't be long before consumers decide the fate of DVD rewritables - with their wallets.

"In the short term, we are expecting those buying a deck for use with a TV to go with the -RW format," Sony's Kerr says. "With PCs, it is a bit of a toss-up. Today it is +RW. In the long term, there is no issue with adding +RW to a consumer deck, but at the moment it's not much of an advantage in having a competing format."

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