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In DVD war, Sony takes sides--both

Battling formats are keeping rewritable DVDs from taking off, but Sony's new drive offers a simple answer: When asked if it prefers this format or that, the drive replies "yes."

Hoping to ease consumer concerns over a confusing DVD standards battle, Sony said Monday it will support the two leading formats in a new line of drives.

DVD recording is gradually catching on with consumers, but confusion over the two leading formats, DVD+RW and DVD-RW, has hampered sales. Analysts say potential buyers don't want to buy an expensive device--often costing upwards of $500--that could soon become a market also-ran.

Sony's solution is simple: the consumer electronics giant will sell an internal and an external PC drive that reads and writes to DVD+RW/+R and DVD-RW/-R discs.

The external DRX-500UL drive will be available in November for $429, while the internal DRU-500A drive will be available in October for $349. The external drive will come with USB and FireWire ports.

"We have found that there is a perception of a format war that may be slowing adoption," Sony spokesman Bob DeMoulin said. "We have brought the formats together so there is no risk for the consumer."

Gartner analyst Mary Craig said other companies are likely to follow Sony's lead.

"Coexistence is where the market is headed," Craig said. "Manufacturers have too much invested to lose it all because they aren't supporting one format."

Sony belongs to the DVD Forum, which supports the DVD-RW, DVD-R and DVD-RAM formats, and the DVD+RW Alliance. The company sells DVD+RW drives, while some of its PCs include DVD-RW drives.

Sony also manufactures and sells DVD+RW, DVD+R, DVD-RW and DVD-R discs. Sony executives have said that the success of one group does not necessarily mean the failure of the other.

"We have a vested interest in both groups succeeding," DeMoulin said. "Being solidly in one camp and not the other at this point is tough to do. Our efforts will probably galvanize some of the other companies into action."

Sony still has to pay royalties to the DVD Forum and the DVD+RW Alliance, but through the integration of several chips in the drives and bringing manufacturing in house, the company has been able to lower costs. Sony previously bought DVD+RW drives from Ricoh because the volumes for the drives were not high enough to justify making their own.

DeMoulin said Sony looked at adding support for DVD-RAM but the cost--about $20 for manufacturing, which translates to $75 to consumers--was too expensive, and consumers looking for a backup capability could use DVD+RW.

Sources say Hitachi LG is also working on a drive that supports DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats and expects it to be available soon.

Sony was not able to make the drives in time to include them in the fall launch of its Vaio line. Vaio PCs are expected to include the drives early next year, according to DeMoulin. Sony is also expected to release a home recorder using the same mechanisms in the new drives early next year.

The growing interest in digital imaging and video has made the 4.7GB capacity of DVD discs very attractive and being able to control the market on reading and writing to those discs could be very significant to consumer-electronics and computer companies.