CEBIT: Recordable DVD standards battle heats up

The standards battle between two competing industry groups over different recordable DVD technologies got a little hotter this week with the first public demonstration of the new rewritable DVD + RW platform at the major European trade show, CeBIT. At stake is a potentially huge market for a technology that could replace several existing recordable platforms, from the venerable video and audio cassettes to computer floppy disks and recordable and rewritable compact disk formats.

The standards battle between two competing industry groups over different recordable DVD technologies got a little hotter this week with the first public demonstration of the new rewritable DVD + RW platform at the major European trade show, CeBIT.

At stake is a potentially huge market for a media that could replace several existing recordable platforms, from the venerable video and audio cassettes to computer floppy disks and recordable and rewritable compact disk formats.

That industry groups are rallying behind two different platform standards for recordable DVDs should not really come as a surprise -- so far the industry can't even agree on what the acronym DVD stands for. Depending on which vendor one talks to, the DVD acronym stands for either digital video disk or digital versatile disk.

The DVD + RW camp here this week demonstrated the read and write capabilities of their technology, which is based on a bare disk format that also will be readable by DVD-ROM drives, although these will need to be modified somewhat from today's standard offerings, officials said.

The first product prototypes based on the DVD + RW standard are expected to be out by this fall, officials said. The group supporting the DVD + RW platform consists of Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, Philips Electronics , Ricoh, Sony and Yamaha.

Officials from all six companies said here yesterday that they, for now at least, have no plans to develop products based on the competing DVD-RAM standard, believing that the DVD + RW offering will better meet customer requirements.

Already shipping in Japan and the US, DVD-RAM drives can read both existing DVD-Video and DVD-ROM disks, as well as CD-ROM, CD-recordable (CD-R), CD-rewritable (CD-RW) and other CD formats.

Two manufacturers of DVD-RAM drives, Toshiba and Hitachi, expect to have their first DVD-RAM drives in European stores by late April or early May, at a price point of around 1,200 marks (US$660), officials said here.

The European DVD-RAM launch will also be accompanied by disks from companies such as Maxell Europe Ltd., which next month will start selling both single-sided 2.6Gbyte and double-sided 5.2Gb disks priced at around US$25 and $40, respectively, officials said.

Another proponent of the DVD-RAM standard and a member of the DVD Forum, Matsushita, earlier this year became the first vendor to ship DVD-RAM drives in the US under its Panasonic brand name.

Users can expect to see leading PC vendors bring out integrated DVD-RAM drives in select high-end systems as early as mid-year, said Yuzo Nishimura, senior engineer, business development department at Hitachi's image and information media systems division.

"We are in talks with several top-tier PC vendors, but it will probably take at least a year before prices of the drives come down to levels that make them suitable for mainstream PCs," Nishimura said.

Nishimura admitted that one problem with the DVD-RAM disks is that they come in cartridges that make them unreadable in today's DVD-ROM drives, adding that the DVD Forum members expect this problem to be solved when next-generation devices start rolling out.

A proponent of DVD + RW, Mike Matson, vice president and general manager in HP's information storage group, in a thinly veiled reference to the DVD-RAM platform, said here yesterday that DVD + RW offers 1.5 times the performance of "the competing technology."

DVD + RW proponents claim that their technology has several advantages over DVD-RAM, noting for example that a single-sided DVD + RW disk will have 3G bytes of storage capacity.

But what the DVD + RW group didn't mention is that its products are delayed, said Hitachi's Nishimura, who also attended yesterday's presentation. "They were supposed to have products ready by now," he said.

In an effort to play down the affect of competing standards on users, officials on both sides of the fence said that the market may well be big enough for more than one platform.

Annual sales of rewritable CD and DVD devices may reach volumes of around 30 million units by 2000, predicted HP's Matson.

That compares to expected sales of some 6.5 million recordable CD-RW devices this year, as compared to only 2.5 million in 1997, said Mikel Dodd, chairman and CEO at Philips Optical Storage, adding that right now, the CD-RW industry is totally supply-constrained and not able to keep up with surging demand.

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