Rewritable DVD: Deja Vu All Over Again?

Rewritable DVD: Deja Vu All Over Again?

The battle lines are being drawn over rewritable DVD formats. Will it be a replay of the VHS vs. Beta battle?

By Steven D. Hammond

Anyone over the age of 30 is old enough to remember the emergence of VCR technology in the 1970s and the intense standards battle that ensued. The uncertainty over whether to choose VHS or Beta confused consumers and created a dilemma for equipment manufacturers and media producers: Produce equipment and media for both formats at a greatly increased cost or bet on one format and lose market share and potentially market position. Either way, the debate slowed the market`s development, leaving manufacturers` and consumers` investments unprotected.

In the 1980s, the compact disc (CD), standardized by Sony and Philips, emerged as a revolutionary new information storage platform because of its universal compatibility, stability, and low cost. Over the past two decades, CD technology has evolved from a read-only technology to a recordable (CD-R) and now rewritable (CD-RW) platform. Because the Sony/Philips standard has been universally accepted, the market has enjoyed unencumbered growth, and users` investments in media have been protected. Sony and Philips own many of the underlying patents, and royalties are paid to the two manufacturers on each drive and disc produced.

In the 1990s, the issue of royalties and technology ownership surfaced again. This time the debate centered around proposals to define DVD technology. Matsushita Electric and Toshiba teamed up to develop the so-called Super Disk (SD), while Sony and Philips proposed the competing Multimedia CD (MMCD). However, under pressure from the computer industry to develop a single standard, the major manufacturers formed the DVD Consortium. The consortium is credited with developing the DVD-ROM standard, which is considered to be a compromise between the two technologies, though it relies heavily on SD technology.

Over the past few years, the industry has continued to rely on the DVD Consortium (now the DVD Forum) to develop subsequent DVD specifications. Most recently, the group adopted a spec for rewritable DVD (DVD-RAM), which is a compromise ("Format C") between "Format A" (proposed by Hitachi, Matsushita Electric, and Toshiba) and "Format B" (proposed by Sony and Philips), but with primary reliance on "Format A." Despite the compromise, Sony and Philips continue to believe in the benefits of their original proposal, and though they have not dropped out of the DVD Forum, they have submitted a modified "Format B" specification to the European Computer Manufacturers` Association (ECMA). Both formats (modified "Format B" and "Format C") are being considered by ECMA.

Most recently, NEC joined the fray, proposing its own standard to be launched later this year. Known as the Multimedia Video Format (MMVF), the NEC system promises twice the storage capacity of DVD-RAM in its initial implementation. NEC states that it attempted to propose this technology to the DVD Consortium but ran into difficulties because it was not a member of the group.

Four Formats = Confusion

It has been said that the best thing about standards is that there are so many from which to choose. It`s this freedom of choice that ultimately allows the market to determine which standard prevails.

When it comes to DVD, battle lines have been clearly drawn. Hitachi, Matsushita Electric, Toshiba, and others say they will produce drives based on the DVD-RAM spec developed by the DVD Forum; Philips, Hewlett-Packard, and others plan to produce drives based on the so-called DVD-ReWritable (DVD+RW) specification; and NEC plans to manufacture drives based on its MMVF technology. As Yogi Berra once said, "It`s deja vu all over again."

How do these three formats differ? From the user`s perspective, DVD-RAM and DVD+RW are quite similar. The DVD+RW group claims their product offers higher capacity (3GB) than DVD-RAM (2.6GB). However, the DVD-RAM group contends better defect management negates the difference in capacity. The DVD+RW group also claims backward compatibility with earlier CD and DVD formats will be easier and less expensive to achieve with their standard, but DVD-RAM proponents argue that their standard is more forward-looking in terms of an evolution to higher-capacity drives.

As for the MMVF format, NEC says it will offer 5.2GB initially, with future expansion to three times that amount. The company claims a minimum of 5.2GB is required to store a two-hour movie, making this format more desirable for the home-video market.

But there is a fourth rewritable high-capacity optical format. Proposed by the Advanced Technology Magneto-Optic Conference (AMTC), a consortium of approximately 12 companies, the MO7 format promises 6GB to 7GB of storage capacity. However, higher media costs and slower access times better suit this technology for storage of massive amounts of archival data than for the markets addressed by CD and DVD.

That said, the following questions remain: How will users be affected by the DVD battle? Are users` investments in media threatened, as they were in the videotape wars of the `70s and `80s? And what about the psychological barrier of switching media?

OSTA to the Rescue

A lot depends on the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA). OSTA is an international trade association, not a standards body, and its members account for more than 80% of all worldwide writable optical product shipments. Its specifications represent a consensus of its members, not the proclamation of a committee.

OSTA is working on two fronts to make sure users are not left in the lurch. First, it recently published the MultiRead specification, which is intended to ensure backward read compatibility among all types of drives, including CD and DVD. Second, the organization published the Universal Disk Format (UDF) specification, which defines the methodology for organizing data written to disks.

The MultiRead specification defines the requirements that a DVD or CD drive must meet to play or read the four principal types of CD disks: CD-Digital Audio (CD-DA), CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW. The specification was conceived, drafted, and proposed to OSTA by member companies Hewlett-Packard and Philips. OSTA provided an open forum for interested members to complete the specification. During this process, several significant enhancements were made, including one to ensure the readability of CD-R discs on DVD-ROM drives. After the specification was approved by vote of a technical subcommittee, it was ratified by OSTA`s board of directors.

Compliance with the MultiRead specification is voluntary. To encourage compliance, a logo program has been established that is administered by HP. Companies that want to display the MultiRead logo on their drives are required to verify compliance of their drives using a test plan published on the OSTA web site. To receive a license to use the logo, companies must submit a test report to HP along with a nominal license fee (less than $1,000) for each type of drive. Media makers can also obtain authorization to use the logo on CD-RW discs.

"The MultiRead program creates a clear mechanism for the user to identify CD and DVD drives that can read the billions of CD-DA, CD-ROM, CD-R, and CD-RW discs that continue to appear in the market place," says Philips Electronics` Cornelis Klik, chairman of OSTA`s CD-Writable Committee, which is responsible for completing the MultiRead project. "The MultiRead feature marks a milestone in the migration path from the world of CD into the DVD domain by aiming to protect consumer investment in data and software," he adds.

How does this specification affect the current rewritable DVD standards battle? It protects consumers` investments. As long as consumers buy drives with the MultiRead logo, they will be able to read all earlier types of media--something DVD-RAM, DVD+RW, and MMVF discs can`t claim. Thus, consumers do not have to worry about their existing inventory of media, about media produced on earlier-generation drives, or even about reading feature-length movies produced on earlier-generation DVD-ROM technology.

From the manufacturers` perspective, MultiRead provides an instant library of prerecorded media on CD and earlier versions of DVD. Also, since the MultiRead format minimizes incompatible standards, the market for these products is expected to expand at a faster rate. Manufacturers will be free to adopt the rewritable DVD standard they prefer, without investing in multiple technologies or risking loss of market share while technologies battle to win the standards war.

UDF Means Data Consistency

The purpose of the second OSTA initiative, the Universal Disk Format (UDF) specification, is to make sure computer data written to all types of optical disks is consistent. While the MultiRead specification guarantees newer types of optical drives can read media created on earlier drives, UDF ensures consistent digital data formats across all types of media. In addition, UDF is designed to be independent of operating systems, which means DVD, CD-R, and CD-RW media all use the same algorithms to interpret Windows 95 or Windows NT data. Again, this specification helps protect users` investments in media and ensures unencumbered market opportunity for manufacturers.

The DVD Forum has adopted UDF as the file system for DVD products. UDF also defines a single packet-writing scheme, which ensures the compatibility of CD-R and CD-RW discs. OSTA members have worked closely with ECMA to ensure UDF is consistent with all related standards, including ECMA-167 and ISO 13346.

Despite the best efforts and negotiating skills of committees and facilitators, powerful economic motives may still prevent the companies involved from reaching a consensus. Dissatisfied parties may adopt their own technologies, in effect transferring the standards decision to the user community. This is what happened with VCRs in the 1970s, and the result was slowed market development and higher costs for manufacturers.

In the case of DVD, some lingering questions remain: Will OSTA`s efforts help keep market growth on track? Which rewritable standard will become king of the hill? How will related industries be affected?

OSTA, through its specifications and push for industry consensus, has provided an impetus toward compatibility among product classes. It is now up to the market to resolve the standards battle.

For more information, visit OSTA`s web site at www.osta.org and the MultiRead web site at www.mulitread.com.

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Steven D. Hammond is chairman of the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) Market Development Committee, and vice president of marketing at Micro Design International, in Winter Park, FL.

This article was originally published on March 01, 1998