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Sony hedges bets with DVD formats

The consumer electronics giant is coming out with DVD+RW drives and discs but plans to continue to support competing formats.

Sony is straddling the fence in the struggle over which DVD rewritable format will eventually dominate the market.

The consumer electronics giant has begun shipping to retailers DVD+RW drives and discs, which should be available to consumers by the end of the month. At the same time, Sony is continuing to support competing DVD rewritable formats--an unusual decision in the industry.

Sony's move comes amid an ongoing donnybrook in the DVD rewritable market. There are several formats, including DVD-RW, DVD-RAM and DVD+RW, that are competing to become the industry standard. However, each format offers its own advantages and challenges.

DVD-RW is mainly for people looking to record video and play it on consumer DVD players. But that format isn't as convenient for data storage as are DVD-RAM and DVD+RW, which allow drive owners to store data randomly, like a hard drive does. In addition, consumers can only record once per session with DVD-RW drives, meaning that if people want to add a video clip to others already on a disc, they must erase the entire disc and record all the video clips at once.

DVD+RW discs can "essentially act like a big floppy," which is why Sony is supporting the format, Sony marketing manager Bob DeMoulin said this week.

The support for DVD+RW from Sony, as well as from other major manufacturers such as PC makers Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard, is a sign that DVD+RW is picking up momentum. But by no means is the debate over.

"We're firmly behind +RW, and we believe it will be successful. But we're not so sure that its success doesn't mean that -RW won't be," DeMoulin said. "That's why we continue to support -RW."

Gartner analyst Mary Craig said Sony's caution is warranted because DVD+RW still has two major hurdles to overcome: compatibility and supply.

"Compatibility with DVD-ROM players will be a key issue for (DVD+RW), and the manufacturers will have to establish credibility with the market that they can supply (enough DVD+RW) drives," Craig said.

Sony plans to continue supporting DVD-RW through its membership in the DVD Forum--a group of hardware makers developing the DVD-RW, DVD-R and DVD-RAM formats--and by selling and manufacturing the competing discs. Still, DeMoulin said the company does not plan to manufacture DVD-RW drives.

Sony is also one of the key members of the DVD+RW Alliance, a group formed to develop and promote the format. The alliance includes Dell and HP.

Some Sony Vaio PCs already come with DVD-RW drives from other manufacturers. That's only because the DVD-RW drives were available before DVD+RW drives, DeMoulin said.

"Our PC guys had to add the technology for competitive reasons, and it was the right decision at the time," DeMoulin said. "But if DVD+RW drives were available at that time, I think there would be DVD+RW drives in those PCs now."

Mark Hanson, Sony vice president of Vaio marketing, concurred that the PC division went with DVD-RW drives because at the time that was the only option.

"We're continuing to evaluate -RW, and it is probably still the main option," Hanson said. "The key is whether or not people can burn and play content on a device."

Such compatibility issues are less of a problem with DVD-RW than with DVD+RW, said Pioneer product manager Paul Meyhoefer. Pioneer is one of the major manufacturers of DVD-RW drives.

"Being able to play video on most of the DVD players on the market is the key strength of DVD-RW," he said.

Meyhoefer asserted that the vast majority of consumer DVD players can play DVD-RW discs. He added that the inability of DVD-RW to store data like a hard drive is a trade-off of the format.

Sony's DRU110A/C1, the combination DVD+RW/CD-RW drive, will cost $599 when it reaches store shelves by month's end. It will record DVDs at speeds of 2.4x and read them at 8x. The DVD+RW discs will cost $16 each.

HP already has a DVD+RW/CD-RW drive on the market and recently announced that its HP Pavilion 9995 PC would come with a DVD+RW drive. Dell announced in late June that it would begin selling DVD+RW drives with its PCs this year, but the company has yet to do so.