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DVD groups agree to disagree

The two groups squabbling to set a rewritable DVD standard show no interest in working together. Could peacemaker Intel save the day?

The two industry groups fighting to set a rewritable DVD standard are showing no interest in working together, but technology tricks and behind-the-scenes talks could inch the sides toward a compromise.

The DVD+RW Alliance, an industry group promoting one of the chief DVD recording formats, came away from a quarterly meeting last week resolving to hold its ground in the standards fight. The DVD Forum, which promotes the DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM formats, doesn't appear to be budging, either.

A number of companies, though, are working on products to get around the format showdown. Consumer electronics giant Sony Electronics announced two new drives that will be able to read and write to both DVD+RW and DVD-RW discs.

Chip giant Intel is also interested in standards, and according to sources, plans to speak with both groups to work out a possible compromise.

"There is a pretty big need to establish an interoperable standard," said Louis Burns, vice president of Intel's desktop group. Burns would not elaborate on any plans. Yet sources close to the company said Intel was getting involved in the debate.

The biggest obstacle for growth in the rewritable DVD drive market is format incompatibility. Companies are butting heads over establishing their respective formats as the industry standard for rewriting and recording content to DVD discs.

At stake are potentially lucrative licensing fees as well as the benefits of being a leader in a growing market. Sony and Philips Electronics have benefited greatly from the licensing of the compact disc, which the two companies codeveloped in the early 1980s.

Customer confusion
But the dispute is causing customer confusion over what discs work with which drives. There are several types of DVD drives, and at least four versions of media, none of which is completely compatible with the other.

In a keynote address delivered at the Intel Developer Forum last week, Intel's Burns showed a slide listing the standards the industry has already agreed upon, and standards that need to be hammered out. The first item on the "to be worked out" list was media formats.

DVD formats
A number of DVD formats are vying for consumers' attention. Here is a quick rundown of them.
Format Function
DVD-ROM Read only.
DVD-RAM Record, erase repeatedly. Good for data storage. Discs not compatible with most consumer DVD players.
DVD-R Record once. Good for video storage. Discs compatible with most recent consumer DVD players.
DVD-RW Record, erase repeatedly. Good for video storage. Discs compatible with most recent consumer DVD players.
DVD+RW Record, erase repeatedly. Good for data and video storage. Supports read and write DVD+R feature.
Intel should be interested in brokering a DVD peace. As part of its plans to promote the "extended PC"--a scheme in which TVs, stereos and other devices would interoperate--Intel needs consumer electronics companies to hammer out conventions and standards.

Sony, Intel and Microsoft, for instance, are now working together to ensure that new devices can talk to PCs. The three companies will soon announce the name and scope of their group, sources close to the plans said.

Still, a complete breakthrough may still be a ways off. Representatives from the DVD+RW Alliance said that Sony's solution of an all-in-one drive is simply short term. The group includes Hewlett Packard, Dell Computer and Philips--all advocates of the DVD+RW format.

"There will still be consumer confusion...if you look at combination drives in general, single formats always have a performance advantage over combo," said Maureen Weber, general manager of HP's optical storage solutions group.

The DVD Forum, whose members include Apple Computer, Hitachi, NEC, Pioneer, Samsung and Sharp--promote and develop the DVD-RAM, DVD-R and DVD-RW formats. The group also frowns on Sony's early efforts.

"The Sony announcement does validate DVD-RW as well established, but it does muddy the situation for consumers who will have to deal with 4 different types of media (DVD+RW, DVD-RW, DVD-R, DVD+R)," said DVD Forum spokesman Andy Marken.

"Multiple application solutions never work as well as standalone, because you never seem to have the right media when you need it," he said.

Compromise ahead?
A compromise isn't impossible, however. Intel intervened in the first DVD standards wars in the late 1990s. At the time, Sony and Philips struggled with Panasonic and Toshiba over whether to allow PCs to read DVD discs. Intel apparently stepped in to broker a deal, said a source close to Sony.

Sony is the only major company to be part of the DVD Forum and DVD+RW Alliance and has been largely standards neutral. Sony's Vaio line uses DVD-R drives, while its drive division sells DVD+RW drives. The company's media division sells DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD+R discs.

Despite the versatility, representatives from both Dell and HP said they don't plan to add Sony's combination DVD+RW and DVD-RW drive to their PC lineups.

"Giving the customer everything might be viewed as the best thing to do, but then they have to understand the many issues of the various formats and what each allows the consumer to do," said Tom Pratt, a Dell technology strategist. "There's no need for that."

Pratt added that the Microsoft's support for the DVD+RW format in upcoming versions of its operating system as well as the support from leading PC makers Dell and HP suggests that it's a matter of time before DVD+RW becomes an industry standard.

"PC OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are going to make the call in terms of establishing the standard," said Gartner analyst Mary Craig. "What they do will have the biggest impact."

Weber said that the DVD+RW Alliance will encourage more PC makers to join the DVD+RW camp and that notebook drives would be available by the fourth quarter to attract more companies.

Pioneer, a member of the DVD Forum, is also working to have a notebook DVD-RW drive supporting the DVD-RW format available by the fourth quarter.