DVD Forum pushes RAM format as industry standard

The three main Japanese promoters of the DVD format - Toshiba, Hitachi and Matsushita - have held a conference to stress the broad industry support their proposed standard enjoys. The move followed last week's surprising announcement that both Sony and NEC will promote their own standards for high capacity rewritable storage. The Sony proposal has received the backing of both Hewlett-Packard and Philips Electronics, continuing the stormy story of the new disk format.

The three main Japanese promoters of the DVD format - Toshiba, Hitachi and Matsushita - have held a conference to stress the broad industry support their proposed standard enjoys. The move followed last week's surprising announcement that Sony and NEC will promote their own standards for high capacity rewritable storage.

The trio outlined a road map for gaining the approval of standards bodies for their DVD-RAM proposal. The vendors said they expect the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA) to finalise the standard by the middle of next year. They will also seek approval for the storage format from the International Standards Organization (ISO).

The vendors represent three of the leading players in the DVD Forum, which is a group of ten companies, including Time Warner and Thomson Multimedia. The forum aims to promote the full suite of DVD products including read-only and rewritable drives.

First generation products offering 2.6Gb of storage will begin trickling into the market in the coming months, company officials say. Prototypes of a 4.7Gb version is due to hit the market by the end of 1998, with volume production of those drives expected to begin in early 1999.

Officials demonstrated PCs with working versions of the existing 2.6Gb implementation of the drive and stressed compatibility among the three vendors' drives. "This is the only standard DVD-RAM," one official said.

Last week Sony announced that a partial break with the DVD Forum, saying that it would pursue its own technology path. The vendor argued that its implementation, geared exclusively at PC users, offers higher capacity storage and better compatibility with DVD-ROMs than the DVD Forum specification.

The Sony proposal which offers a storage capacity of 3.0Gb received the backing of both Hewlett-Packard and Philips Electronics.

However Sony intends to retain its membership of the DVD Forum and will still support the DVD-ROM, which the company sees as " the next generation storage media replacement for CD drives," according to a Sony spokesman.

In fact, the company prefers to play down the smoldering battle over the rewritable format. "It is not necessarily an 'either-or' choice," the Sony spokesman said. "It's the choice of what is better for your own data storage needs."

The partial defection of Sony marks another salvo in the turbulent development of the DVD platform, considered to be the successor to today's CD drives and VHS recorders. From the technology's earliest days Sony and Matsushita, infamous archrivals, have battled over the basic technology for the ROM version of the drive.

Though an agreement was reached and the rivals joined hands producing the DVD-ROMs that are now hitting the market, the bulk of the drive's technology came from the labs of Matsushita and Toshiba, not Sony.

Despite Sony's hopes of reversing that with its rewritable technology, the DVD Forum is ready to push its format into standardisation without support of the consumer electronics giant.

"Companies in the DVD Forum have no opinion on 'format X,'" says Shunji Ohara, manager of the optical disk systems development center at Matsushita, in a veiled reference to Sony's technology. "This is not the time to discuss the DVD or the Sony format - it's time to develop applications for the DVD format."

Officials also say they hope to woo NEC into joining the DVD Forum, despite the computer vendor's disclosure last week that it will not build DVD-RAM drives. Instead it will push its "Multimedia Video File," a rewritable format which stores 5.2G bytes of data.

"When we start to develop the next generation [of drives] we would like NEC to join us in developing 4.7- or 5G-byte drives," says Ohara

However, an NEC spokesman says the company has no plans to back the DVD Forum and is unsure about any future alliance. "We haven't made up our mind whether we would want to do that," he says.

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