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Firms tout future DVD drives

Sony, Philips, and HP haven't shipped their drives yet, but that hasn't stopped them from talking up how much more storage space is coming next.

Sony, Philips, Hewlett-Packard, and others haven't yet shipped their version of re-recordable DVD drives, but that hasn't stopped them from talking about new versions that would store even more data than the non-existent drives.

At the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas the companies said that they are working on a revised version of DVD+RW technology that could store 4.7GB of data--when the drives are available, which should be sometime in the year 2000, say analysts. That compares to the current specified 3.0GB of data for drives that are due out in the spring of 1999.

The ability to store so much data is essential to companies wishing to establish a market for recordable DVD drives. DVD-ROM (or DVD Video) is a write-once media which holds about 4.7GB of data--enough to store an entire feature-length film. Rewritable DVD takes the concept one step further by allowing consumers to erase and re-record data, as people do with VCRs and tape decks but not CD-ROMs.

The availability of recordable DVD disks is widely seen as the key to tapping into a potentially huge consumer DVD market reaching perhaps 10 million units in 1999, according to Dataquest, as the drives increasingly come with new PCs.

With an eye on this market, Sony, Philips, and HP more than a year ago broke away from a group of companies supporting a standard called DVD-RAM that includes Toshiba and Matsushita Electric to push their own standard for re-recordable DVD.

DVD-RAM supporters have a plan to introduce a follow on to DVD-RAM that will be able to store up to 4.7GB of data, compared to the 2.6GB that currently available DVD-RAM drives can store. Those drives are expected to be on the market in extremely limited quantities by the end of 1999.

Pioneer New Media Technologies said at Comdex it plans to offer its own take on the DVD standard with the industry's first 4.7GB "DVD-R" drive that only records once on a disc but could potentially be upgraded to Pioneer's re-recordable technology, making all of the higher capacity DVD drives a storage technology for the new millennium.

Larger questions remain for the DVD+RW format. With DVD-RAM drives already available, DVD+RW supporters are about a year behind on both the 3.0GB and 4.7 GB standards, said Ted Pine, analyst with InfoTech Research.

"They [DVD+RW proponents] are never going to make up that year lead DVD-RAM has. The question is will the DVD-RAM guys use that to create a preemptive strike to gain market position," Pine asks. "So far they haven't done that."

So far, Sony, HP and others are banking on DVD+RW having a "marketing advantage," said Pine, principally, the ability to record without putting the disk in a separate caddy.

For drive makers, the problem is that current DVD drives can't accept the cartridges, in addition to being unable to read DVD-RAM or DVD+RW disks themselves. Both problems will eventually go away as the technology matures, though.

With few distinct advantages from one drive over the other by the time both are widely available, "The battle will be won by the superior marketing campaign," Pine predicts.

For its part, the group, which includes Ricoh, Mitsubishi Chemical, and Yamaha, is working on gathering support from manufacturers through a new group called the DVD+RW Compatibility Alliance and is working on pushing the technology through international standards bodies as well.

Elsewhere on the show floor in Las Vegas, Teac said it is shipping the first 6X recordable CD drives, which are priced at $499 for the internal version and $599 for the external version. Pioneer said it is shipping a 6X DVD-ROM drive for PC manufacturers, which will have an estimated street price of $150.