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Next-generation DVD moves ahead

Score No. 1 for Microsoft's foray into video standards.

A standards body has pushed a next-generation DVD format forward, endorsing Microsoft's video technology along the way.

Last week, the DVD Forum steering committee approved version 1.0 of the physical specifications for HD-DVD read-only discs and voted to require that makers of HD-DVD video playback devices build in three video codecs, including the VC-9 technology used in Microsoft's Windows Media Video 9.

The decisions boost Microsoft's efforts in the digital entertainment arena and also advance the HD-DVD technology developed by Toshiba and NEC. HD-DVD, also known as high-definition and high-density DVD, uses blue laser light to cram more information on to discs than today's red-laser DVDs. The technology is vying against the rival Blu-ray format backed by Sony and others, as well as a Chinese format called EVD.

Approval of version 1.0 of the HD-DVD physical specifications gives manufacturers a green light to begin producing devices, said Wolfgang Schlichting, an analyst with researcher IDC. But he said it's not clear the HD-DVD format has an edge over the Blu-ray camp in the skirmish over formatting high-definition programming. In a contest that echoes the VHS-Betamax war over video tape standards, Schlichting said a key will be wooing content providers, especially movie studios. "You can't win the battle without content," he said.

The DVD Forum could give Microsoft credibility in pursuit of content as it shops its codec--compression-decompression algorithm--to partners outside the PC business.

In September, Microsoft submitted VC-9 as a standards candidate to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers--a first for the company and a marked departure from its longtime commitment to keeping its technology proprietary.

In doing so, Microsoft set out to provide a viable successor to MPEG-2, a compression standard that is the foundation of satellite, cable, video editing systems and DVDs. Microsoft hopes that its technology will become de facto for a range of set-top boxes, professional video editing equipment, satellite transmissions and consumer electronics.

In addition to requiring the VC-9 codec when products are made to the HD-DVD video specification for playback devices, the DVD Forum steering committee also mandated the inclusion of MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC (H.264). All three codecs had received a provisional nod from the Forum in February, subject to conditions including an update of licensing terms and conditions.

Not all members of the DVD Forum steering committee were ready to give a final seal of approval to the codecs last week. There was a motion to retain the provisional approval of the codecs "until the level of information concerning the licensing terms for VC-9 is the same as the level of information concerning the licensing terms for AVC/H.264," according to the Forum's Web site. But the motion failed.