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Rewritable DVD: A year unchanged

Recordable DVD drives could be a big hit with consumers, but a simmering standards battle jeopardizes widespread acceptance.

Recordable DVD drives could be a big hit with consumers, but a simmering standards battle is jeopardizing widespread acceptance of the technology.

Although industry leaders and analysts have identified latent demand for a high-capacity storage medium that allows consumers to inexpensively record their own DVD disks, a turf war has prevented the technology from coming into the mainstream.

About this time last year, the outlook for quickly establishing a recordable DVD standard looked dim, as almost every week competing factions announced new, proprietary formats. One year later, not much has improved. Only one such format has actually been introduced, and the chances for averting a full-on standards battle are becoming slimmer.

"The formation of the DVD standard was so contentious and so debilitating for the losers that there still is a lot of rancor in the industry," said Julie Schwerin, chairman of InfoTech. "They [the also-rans in the DVD-ROM war] don't perceive that they can work with the companies that succeeded in establishing their technology: Toshiba, Time-Warner, and Matsushita."

Rewritable DVD formats
Name Capacity Companies Shipping
DVD-RAM 2.6GB Toshiba, Panasonic, Hitachi Yes
DVD+RW 3GB Sony, Philips, HP No
ASMO 6GB per side Fujitsu, Hitachi, Sharp No
MMVF 5.2GB per side NEC No
Source: Dataquest

DVD-ROM is a write-once digital versatile disc which generally holds 4.7GB of data--enough to store an entire feature-length film--and is gaining in popularity after a contentious standards battle of its own. Rewritable DVD takes the concept one step further by allowing consumers to erase and re-record data, like people do with VCRs and tape decks but not CD-ROMs.

The availability of recordable DVD discs is widely seen as the key to tapping into a potentially huge consumer DVD market, provided that the numerous proprietary formats for the new storage technology are eventually streamlined into one or two standard formats, at consumer price-points.

"If the DVD format is to replace the VCR it must be a recordable product at a consumer price point," said Schwerin, noting that 15 years passed between the introduction of CDs and the availability of rewritable CD drives priced for consumers.

About a year ago, four different formats for rewritable DVD emerged, each backed by several major consumer electronics firms, and each incompatible with the other. They are: DVD-RAM, DVD+RW, ASMO, and MMVF.

So far, among the rewritable DVD formats in the running, DVD-RAM and DVD+RW have emerged as the leading contenders. DVD-RAM offers less capacity, 2.6GB, than the 3GB DVD+RW format, but it is the only format that is currently available in stores.

Toshiba, Panasonic, and Hitachi are shipping DVD-RAM drives, unlike DVD+RW which won't start shipping until next year. Additionally, the next generation of DVD-RAM drives from these manufacturers will also read DVD-ROM drives, which to date has not been possible.

Fujitsu is the leading proponent of the ASMO format (Advanced Storage Magneto-Optical discs), which is also supported by Sony, Philips, Hitachi, and Sharp. ASMO has a storage capacity of 6GB per side, much more than DVD-RAM, but no ASMO products have been announced yet, said Mary Bourdon, a Dataquest analyst.

MMVF (Multi-Media Video File), another format not yet available, is designed to offer 5.2GB capacity per side. Developed by NEC, MMVF is not expected to target the consumer market, according to Bourdon.

While coming to an industry-wide consensus about an emerging technology is generally a lengthy and contentious process, progress has been especially difficult with recordable DVD, largely because of the scars from the last battle, Schwerin and others said.

"There's bad feelings on all sides, and yet the stakes are really big," Schwerin said.

DVD players are predicted to sell more than 1.2 million units worldwide in 1998, a 140 percent increase over 1997, according to InfoTech. "It depends on how much the companies want to risk trying to succeed," Schwerin said.

Progress is further hampered by the fact that the company that establishes the standard typically reaps the largest reward. "Generally speaking, once you're out to market with a good working drive that's accepted it has a better chance of dominating," said Bourdon.

Both Schwerin and Bourdon agree that these types of standards issues are fairly typical in the early stages of any new technology, and will probably not do much to hinder later, widespread adoption of rewritable DVD.

"This happens in [other markets] as far as formats competing for attention," said Bourdon. "In the storage market Iomega is trying to become the predominant reigning supreme product. Zip wants to replace all the floppy drives and we don't see that happening, just like I don't see anyone reigning supreme in rewritable DVD market."

Most consumers are not yet even aware of the competing formats, Schwerin noted. "Consumers aren't paying attention," she said. "They're still trying to get over how Divx is different from DVD."

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