Computing giants struggle over DVD recording format

For the first time, the DVD recordable market is finally shaking out, although which format will win--DVD-RW, DVD+RW or DVD-RAM--remains uncertain.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
LAS VEGAS--Promises, promises.

For the third Comdex in a row, manufacturers at the trade show strutted out models capable of recording to DVD media. But behind the scenes, manufacturers jockeying to push their preferred rewritable and recordable formats over competing standards have left consumers with a string of failed promises.

Comdex 2000:
Back to the future Still, for the first time, the DVD recordable market is finally shaking out, although which format will win--DVD-RW, DVD+RW or DVD-RAM--remains uncertain. All three formats record to 4.7-GB disks similar to those used in DVD movies. DVD+RW and DVD-RW are compatible with many DVD movie players and some drives can also record CDs. DVD-RAM beat the others to market, but suffers from compatibility problems with DVD players and DVD drives.

The stakes are high, and all the players know it. Market researcher IDC forecasts the CD/DVD-recordable market to be the fastest-growing optical storage segment, expected to register 45 percent growth compounded annually through 2004.

While rewritable CD, or CD-RW, drives dominate now, DVD recordable will become "a significant media format in 2002," IDC analyst Wolfgang Schlichting said during a Comdex presentation.

CD-RW drives, which write to disks which can be played in CD players and CD-ROM drives, ship on roughly 40 percent of PCs sold, and computer and drive makers view DVD recordable as the next big thing. With the first DVD music titles selling in stores, the interest has only intensified.

CD-RW took off with consumers as way of creating music CDs. Similar music and video trends are expected to drive DVD recordable sales.

But which DVD recordable format will dominate is uncertain, despite some impressive industry giants lining up behind the three dominant formats.

What's on deck
On paper, DVD+RW is the most impressive of the lot, and at this year's Comdex it solidified some of the biggest supporters in the industry. But the DVD+RW camp also has been showing off prototypes longer than any of the others and, to date, has delivered no product to market.

"DVD+RW, it's like waiting for Godot," said Dataquest analyst Mary Craig. "This is the third year of demonstrations. There's a real credibility problem here."

The DVD+RW group once again descended on Comdex in force, adding Hewlett-Packard to longtime backers Ricoh, Philips Electronics and Sony.

DVD+RW's backward compatibility with DVD players and DVD-ROM drives is one of the technology's strongest selling points. Its six backers control 75 percent of the CD market, said Pradeep Jotwani, president of HP's consumer business organization.

In mid-2001, HP plans to release a new standalone drive, code-named Superdrive, that can read and create both CDs and DVDs. In the future, Jotwani said, such drives could be hooked up to broadband Internet connections so DVD movies could be downloaded to homes.

But DVD+RW supporters have demonstrated prototypes at major trade shows over three years, each time promising products in about six months.

Craig eyed those promises skeptically.

"What they have to do is deliver," she said. "Ricoh said they would deliver third quarter of next year. If they don't, then I think people are going to say, 'C'mon here, you're jerking us around again.'"

Staying power?
DVD-RAM, backed by Hitachi and Matsushita/Panasonic, is the here-today recordable technology, but there are questions whether it also might be the gone-tomorrow option.

Unlike DVD-RW or DVD+RW, which record to either single-use or rewritable media, DVD-RAM is a fully rewritable technology. It is also the most flexible of the formats in terms of ease of use. On PCs or Macs, consumers simply drag and drop files onto their DVD-RAM drives the same way they would with a hard disk.

While Panasonic says it sold about 600,000 DVD-RAM drives last year, compatibility problems have hurt sales. Until mid-summer, DVD-RAM capacity topped out at 2.6GB, making it totally incompatible with the 4.7GB standard of the competing formats and that used for DVD movies.

While companies like LaCie and QPS sell 4.7GB DVD-RAM drives, the newer, higher-capacity media are hard to come by. Compatibility with DVD-ROM drives and DVD players remains a major issue.

"The area where we are facing some challenges is the backward compatibility to the DVD players," said Jeffrey Faake, general manager for Panasonic's computer technologies group.

Still, Faake remains optimistic about DVD-RAM's future, particularly for desktop backup and video production. Apple Computer has long supported DVD-RAM, offering it as an option on PowerMac G4 systems. Panasonic makes Apple's drives, as well as those used in some IBM Netfinity servers. Dell Computer also offers DVD-RAM drives from Hitachi on some of its systems.

But the most important supporter of DVD-RAM could be Compaq Computer, which during Comdex said it would offer the drive on Presario 7000 consumer PCs and workstations.

Stephen Schultis, Compaq's manager of configure-to-order consumer desktops, explained Compaq's interest in DVD-RAM.

"It's most important for customers looking for storage for very large types of files and really plays to streaming audio and video files," he said. All the consumer systems available with DVD-RAM also use IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire, which is used for transferring video from digital camcorders to PCs. "It's ideal for video," he said.

Compaq initially will offer DVD-RAM as a configure-to-order option and could make it standard on high-end models in the future.

Schultis emphasized that Compaq would evaluate other DVD recordable technologies but chose DVD-RAM now because of its availability and ease of use.

New kid on the block
More compelling than either DVD+RW or DVD-RAM may be an upstart's rush to market. Pioneer Electronics demonstrated at Comdex a combination DVD-RW/CD-RW drive that fills in the compatibility gaps DVD-RAM misses, with DVD+RW's most compelling features. In addition, it potentially will be available much sooner than DVD+RW.

"Pioneer is going to get more interesting in that they are going to get more aggressive with their all-in-one drive," Craig said. With the target price for media at $10 a disc--compared with more than $30 for single-sided DVD-RAM--and drives priced below $1,000, Pioneer could prove a challenge to DVD+RW's big backers and DVD-RAM's early market lead, she said.

Still, picking a winner is difficult, and technology has little to do with it. HP's market leadership in CD-RW is seen as a strong selling point for DVD+RW. But Panasonic's close relationship with PC makers is seen as a big boost for DVD-RAM.

"Logic doesn't often work in this industry," Craig quipped. She referred to the battle between Iomega's Zip and LS-120, also known as SuperDisk, to replace the floppy. SuperDisk's advantages included backward compatibility with floppy disks and big backers, such as Compaq and Imation.

"Logically the LS-120 should have been the drive hands down, because of the backward compatibility," Craig said. But delays getting SuperDisk to market and "Iomega's terrific job of marketing" gave Zip the edge.

In the end, the winner in the DVD recordable race may be determined by which company succeeds in the consumer electronics market. After all, Craig points out, "CD-RW only took off after consumers realized they could create music CDs."