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First DVD-RAM drives due

Toshiba, Hitachi, and Matsushita are getting ready to release the first re-recordable DVD storage devices.

Toshiba in early summer will offer DVD-RAM drives as standard technology in desktop PCs, in the process taking a significant step in advancing the high-capacity storage market.

So far, the market for re-recordable DVD drives has been sundered by competing standards, a situation that has several times delayed planned launches by several vendors. But Toshiba is now trying to jump start demand, as the company begins offering DVD-RAM drives as an option on its business PCs in early summer, a product manager told CNET'S NEWS.COM. Originally, Toshiba said this would happen by April, but subsequently revised this statement.

Hitachi and Matsushita Electric, however, may get an earlier start. Hitachi is expected to begin volume of DVD-RAM drives in April, and Matsushita will release drives and discs under the Panasonic brand name into the U.S. in the same time frame.

But Toshiba and rival vendors face both pricing and technical hurdles to the widespread adoption of DVD-RAM drives, which will compete with other up-and-coming storage technologies such as rewritable CDs, read-only DVD, and even removable storage media like Iomega's Jaz drives.

DVD-RAM allows users to record data onto a disc, erase it, and then re-record on the same disc, similar to how a VCR or computer disk is used. The beauty of the technology is that discs will be relatively cheap, between $40 and $50, providing an inexpensive way to store massive amounts of data.

Toshiba's drives will be able to store 2.6GB of data on a single side. Although DVD-ROM drives can play back up to 4.7GB of multimedia content on a single side, DVD-ROMs can't re-record information.

DVD-RAM drives could pose a threat to other high-capacity storage devices, but the success of DVD vendors hinges on a number of factors, price being one of the most important.

The mass adoption of DVD-RAM "will depend ultimately on the price point. If it's $500 or over that, there will be little to no impact [on other mass storage devices]. If DVD-RAM is in the $399 price point it will impact rewritable CD (CD-RW) unless vendors can get [CD-RW[ down to $199, which I think is a stretch," says Mary Bourdon, optical storage analyst with Dataquest.

Most DVD-RAM drives are expected to be priced initially in the $700 to $800 range. Some analysts think that it will be at least a year, and possibly two, before DVD-RAM surfaces as a replacement for DVD-ROM drives, with the reason being that DVD-RAM technology is still playing catch up in terms of storage capacity.

Another problem Toshiba and other vendors face is continuing confusion regarding DVD standards.

In September of 1997, Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, and others announced that they were working on a separate re-recordable DVD technology that could potentially store up to 3.0GB of data per side. Their technology, called DVD+RW, wouldn't be compatible with DVD-RAM drives.

The DVD Forum, an industry consortium, later said it started working on a standard for next-generation re-recordable DVD-RAM drives that can store 4.7GB of information on a single-sided disk. These drives would presumably be backwards compatible with older DVD-RAM formats.

Even current, decided standards won't be entirely compatible at the outset. The newest generation of DVD-ROM drives can't read DVD-RAM discs, a problem expected to be fixed with the introduction of so-called DVD-ROM III drives, says Ted Pine, an analyst with market research firm InfoTech. This limitation will initially make DVD-RAM drives more useful for archival purposes, Pine says.

"The most interesting thing from a consumer point of view is that if you are looking for a backup medium, you have to like the fact that they priced the discs at $40 to $50," quite a low cost per megabyte of storage, he said. But until there is a large installed base of DVD-ROM drives that can read DVD-RAM, users won't be able to easily share information as they do with other storage types, Pine says.