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Let's Get Simple: Corporate-Friendly DVD Authoring

Jeff Sauer

EMedia Magazine, October 2000
Copyright © Online Inc.



D
VD has promised to bring video to the corporate mainstream, but until recently most DVD authoring systems have been far too pricey to make any serious corporate inroads.

With those high prices, the majority of DVD authoring remained the domain of service bureaus encoding Hollywood movies and only the occasional corporate project. Now, much lower-cost authoring, software, led by Sonic Solutions' $500, overtly simple DVDit!, along with the success of DVD consumer players, has started to capture the attention of the business world.

By now, Sonic has sold more than 150,000 copies of DVDit!, though more than 60 percent of those sales have likely come through bundling arrangements with Sonic's technology and business partners. Competitors argue that many of those copies aren't being used and that the software is so simple that users can't complete any real projects. Nonetheless, the attention Sonic has received speaks for itself. If nothing else, DVDit! has raised awareness of the DVD format, its capabilities, and how easy it can be to incorporate high-quality video in presentations, training, sales demos, and other business communications.

Unfortunately, low-priced authoring tools can only take DVD part of the way to widespread acceptance. DVD-R burners are still prohibitively priced for almost all of the business sectors targeted by low-cost DVD authoring solutions. The DVD-RAM triumvirate of Matsushita, Toshiba, and Hitachi is only starting to deliver product that rises above format bickering, and RAM media manufacturers have yet to produce discs that will play in a consumer DVD player. (Even DVD-R can't make that claim without exception.) Meanwhile, DVD authoring companies are promoting DVD on CD-ROM as the simplest way to use video today, yet compliance between CD-R discs and DVD players also remains elusive, since most DVD players regard any CD-R as an audio disc. Meanwhile, the Internet and World Wide Web have clearly established themselves as the distribution method of choice for many types of information, including media-rich content.

Yet the trend toward lower-cost software is clear, as is the growing interest from the business community, particularly as the high-end authoring system market has demonstrably flattened. Many industry insiders believe the technical shortcomings will be resolved within a few months, and encouraged by this prognosis, companies are aggressively pursuing market share. Not only is Sonic working on new version of DVDit!, Spruce is about to release an even lower-cost solution that could give Sonic a serious challenge. Multimedia Technology Center quietly offers authoring tools that run $75-$3,000 for products that all build compliant disc images, and Daikin–maker of the first professional authoring tool, Scenarist–has re-focused its development efforts on a much lower-cost product.

IT'S ABOUT USING VIDEO

While DVDit! has become the poster child for lower-cost DVD authoring, the trend actually started a year before DVDit! arrived in the marketplace. Astarte's DVDirector and, a few months later, Spruce's DVDVirtuoso–a lower-cost and feature-reduced version of the company's professional-grade DVDMaestro–both took prices well under five digits in hopes of courting the elusive corporate market. Yet while the new price points represented a significant step downward, market growth remained incremental as best. Prices were still high for software and these products still didn't give users an easy way to use video assets.

With DVDit!, Sonic Solutions realized that a large portion of the possible DVD titles didn't need many of the features that make DVD so powerful, programming-rich, and expensive. James Manning, product manager for DVDit!, points out that "multiple angles, advanced programming navigation, parental controls, and even multiple language subtitles are all features that are typically reserved for a small number of higher-profile titles and projects. A lot of people just want to put some high-quality video on a disc." After that, they can use digital video data in any number of applications, including presentations, training, and the like. But Sonic also saw the price for that had to be much lower still than something in the thousands and priced DVDit! at $500, going even lower for the LE (Light Edition) version bundled with many capture cards and video editing systems, but not sold separately.

Moreover, Sonic recognized that the timeline and flowchart interfaces of the professional authoring systems, including the company's own DVDCreator, required technical know-how beyond the learning ambitions of a large potential market. The response to DVDit! suggests that Sonic has struck a chord with a combination of simplicity and features to create DVD disc images.

Manning references a panel on which he recently spoke that exemplifies the new market. "The room was packed with people who already understood the concept of DVD, maybe just because they had seen discs at Blockbuster or somewhere. What they wanted to hear was that it's cheap and it's easy to do."

THE MAX FOR THE MINIMUM

Even at its low price, DVDit! SE (Standard Edition) has its shortcomings. It has very limited video tracks and menus, is incapable of producing chapter marks, offers no project overview, and is hampered by somewhat awkward text tools. However, the product's six-figure sales volumes prove there is still a market opportunity and Sonic has now hedged its bet with a "Professional Edition (PE)," which costs twice as much, but adds several features.

The most glaring omission in DVDit! SE is the lack of chapter marks, and Sonic dramatically accelerated the development and release of DVDit! PE mainly to offer that feature. "We learned that people understood the basic navigation of DVD discs and wanted that ability as a basic feature. We had to leave out some of the features we'd have liked in the first version of PE in order to get chapter marks to our users more quickly," admits Manning. He goes on to say Sonic will add those other features very soon in a free upgrade.

Sonic's competitors are, not surprisingly, more critical of DVDit!, citing the testimonials of users who have expressed disappointment at the functionality limitations and usability of the program. Spruce Technologies and Daikin both offer products that they suggest are a step up for users who are dissatisfied with the shortcomings of DVDit!.

Spruce's Pete Challinger says that Spruce heard from several users of DVDit! who find they really need something more. "What we've seen is that users like event and wedding videographers are starting to look at DVD now that prices are within their reach, but they need a little more than what DVDit! offers. Our DVDVirtuoso is a good solution for them." Challinger admits, however, that at $1,499, DVDVirtuoso is not a mass-market tool. It uses the same capable interface and engine as their higher-end DVDConductor and DVDMaestro, and reduces the price and learning curve by limiting the number of video and audio tracks and menus, and eliminating support for multi-angle and multiple audio authoring.

Similarly, Daikin has turned most of its research and development away from Scenarist, its high-end entry, and shifted its focus to ReelDVD, which should be selling for less than $2,000 by fourth-quarter 2000. It uses the very mature core engine of Scenarist, but removes many of the features and some of the complexity. Karen Birnie of Daikin notes that the tricky part about reducing features to achieve lower prices is that "entry-level buyers still want high-end functionality." Consequently, Daikin has elected to keep some of the higher-end tool's more popular features–capabilities omitted by other on-the-cheap offerings. Birnie says, "ReelDVD is the only product in the price range that offers motion menus, up to three languages, and up to three different subtitles in a project."

Birnie is incorrect on one of those points. Multimedia Technology Center is a tiny company that has been producing authoring software for years going back to the VideoCD and CD-i formats. Their most expensive DVD authoring product, DVDMotion Pro, is $3,500, but DVDMotion SE and DVDMotion CE are $300 and $75, respectively and both the Pro and the $300 SE versions support motion menus . Rick Hallock of MTC says, "I may be crazy to add all the features I do at those prices, but I don't have the marketing budgets these other companies do." And while MTC's sales volumes to end-users remain small, Philips has bundled over 150,000 copies of DVDMotion CE with their DVD players.

Sonic's competitors also say quietly that they're very pleased that DVDit! has helped broaden the DVD authoring market. Of course, they would all be happier if they had Sonic's market share and installed base. As Spruce's Challinger says, "All the publicity of DVDit! has increased awareness and market knowledge and that helps us."

SPRUCING UP THE COMPETITION

The first company to challenge Sonic's low-end market dominance head on appears to be Spruce Technologies. While they've yet to admit it publicly, they've been carefully studying the success and failures of DVDit! in order to develop their own mass-market authoring tool, rumored to be called Spruce Up. While specific features remain sketchy at this time (a formal announcement should come by mid-October), Spruce has enlisted former Adobe personnel to help design an interface with very broad appeal and usability.

Stephen Inoue, product manager for the future product, admits that he is using the same core engine as drives Spruce's professional products. "I'm sure Sonic leverages the expertise they've gained from the higher-end tools, but they really built DVDit! from the ground up with a new code base. I have free access to the core engine from DVDMaestro." By using the same core engine as their other products, Spruce will immediately have a QA advantage because they've already done, for example, player compatibility testing and other industry compliance for the professional tools.

Inoue also boasts that while he's had some heated debates internally about cutting into DVDVirtuoso's market, he won't be feature-crippling his product in order simply to slice the market. "Most companies, including Sonic, have intentionally limited features on lower-end products to keep their high-end tools more valuable." By contrast, he says, "I'm going to let the interface and usability drive the feature list." Inoue believes that "a little cannibalization of DVDVirtuoso sales in the short term is okay if it means an advantage in the long term."

Rather than having multiple versions of Spruce Up, for example, a Lite or Professional addition with fewer or added features, Inoue will bank on just a single product. He plans to offer a free trial version on the Web and subsequently sell a single full-featured tool that will grow over time. "We won't have any theme packs or templates as Sonic does. I don't think users want those games." Inoue goes on to hint at professional features like NTSC safe zones and layout control for titling, auto scene indexing for chapter marks and navigation, use of video stills as buttons and backgrounds, and clip trimming from within the interface.

While specific pricing won't be announced until the middle of October, Inoue suggests that Spruce Up will be priced low enough to allow a single source to make an impulse buying decision. That's a somewhat evasive number, but many consumer electronic marketers consider $200 to be that limit. If Spruce goes that low, and if Spruce Up lives up to promises, DVD authoring may reach many more users indeed. And, then, if DVD burners reach CD-R price points…

THE BURN'S THE RUB

Unfortunately, even if Spruce Up or one of the other products becomes the killer app for DVD authoring, the industry still faces the problem of users being unable to create physical discs that play in a consumer DVD player. Since CD-ROM's success beyond application software derived directly from the ubiquity of CD-R, and the fluid, replication-independent publishing models it engendered, DVD-R's mass market viability is an essential component of a thriving DVD authoring market that extends beyond Hollywood and service bureaus. The least expensive DVD burner is Pioneer's $5,400 DVR-S201 and blank media is still about $50 per disc, not at all low enough to be add-on purchases for a $500 piece of software. Worse, while some industry pundits predict a $1,000 burner from Pioneer some time next year, they're currently back-ordered some three months on shipments of the S201 and, therefore, may take their time bringing lower-cost products to market.

The DVD-RAM triad has been promising the ability to create discs that will play in consumer DVD players, but that feature is not yet available. Panasonic, Hitachi, and Toshiba (all makers of DVD-RAM drives) say that all of their future DVD players starting some time this fall will have additional functionality to read DVD-RAM discs. However, DVD players currently in the market will never be able to read these discs.

In lieu of a viable writable DVD option, some DVD authoring vendors are strongly promoting so-called "DVD on CD-ROM," or burning a DVD disc image and compliant file structure onto a CD-R disc. Any computer DVD-ROM should handily be able to play a CD-R, but DVD players can only play CD-Rs as audio discs. Manufacturers argue that most corporate projects have limited distribution to targeted users and the twenty minutes of MPEG-2 or hour of MPEG-1 that fits onto a CD-ROM is often enough.

According to Spruce director of marketing Joe Shike, "Most corporate DVD projects today never go to mastering anyway. If they burn DVDs, they'll make 10-15, maybe even 50 copies for limited distribution and never send a master." With such targeted distribution, the player is not likely to be an unknown, and CD-ROMs are often fine.

James Manning of Sonic agrees. "I don't see the DVD-R issue as being the stumbling block anymore. We're still not talking about mom and dad or grandma, but there are plenty of professionals out there making money" and DVD on CD-ROM is an effective method.

WHAT ABOUT THE WEB?

Visit Sonic's Web site (http://www.sonic.com) and the first thing you'll discover is the company heralding itself as follows: "Where DVD Meets the Internet." Yet even at $500, DVDit! is more expensive and ultimately less capable than HTML programming tools like Macromedia's Dreamweaver or Adobe's GoLive. And if corporate video projects are limited to computer players because of CD-ROM distribution, the Internet may offer an alternative to DVD authoring altogether, especially over broad intranet bandwidths.

Rick Hallock of MTC agrees that some sophisticated users may indeed be enticed away from DVD in its current state, but he maintains nonetheless that DVD authoring is the easiest way to use video for the average corporate presenter. "There's some truth to [the HTML alternative], but it's problematic. If you have a newer PC, it will work pretty well, but if you have an older PC you might have problems, and WebDVD went nowhere. The person that DVDMotion CE is designed for doesn't know anything about HTML programming. With DVDMotion, they can use video with no technical knowledge. It's very difficult to imagine that with HTML."

Manning of Sonic agrees. "You can do a presentation in HTML with video in it, but it's very hard for someone to go out and buy a product that can do that easily. The beauty of DVDit! is that it's all so easy, you can have the player built in, and it's all there."

A DVD FUTURE

Since DVD player sales into the home market have surpassed nearly all expectation, DVD player compatibility remains the elusive dream of DVD authoring companies and the lingering barrier to the emergence of a true consumer mass market. Each of the companies sees a day when their tools go hand in hand with DVD players and ultimately replace VCRs.

Stuart Gold of Shadow and Light Productions is a DVD developer who sees it both ways. "The stopper is that users can't treat DVD like a VHS tape. If they burn a disc it can't necessarily go in a player and just play. On the other hand, there are solutions available today, and my clients are amazed at what they can get for video quality even on a CD-ROM." The fact that DVD authoring hasn't yet reached true consumer levels leaves Gold some breathing room to offer a service that his clients can't provide for themselves.

Of course, Sonic Solutions, Spruce, MTC, Daikin, and others are trying to change that.


Where's Astarte?

The company that's missing amid the current DVD buzz is Astarte, the one that helped set the prices tumbling in the first place. This spring, Astarte was purchased by Apple Computer, and both its DVDirector for Mac and a beta Windows Version were abruptly removed from the market. Apple has made no comment about its plans for Astarte's assets, but current speculation suggests two possibilities.

Off-the-record comments point, first, to Apple using Astarte's MPEG expertise simply to bring QuickTime's MPEG support up-to-date. Second, speculation abounds that Apple, whose interest in software is to help sell computers in high volume, will eventually release a very affordable DVD authoring tool of its own to strengthen both its Final Cut and free iMovie video editing software. Apple already supports DVD-RAM in some high-end G4 configurations, and DVD authoring would be a natural progression for its video-oriented products.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Adobe Systems, Inc.
345 Park Avenue, San Jose, CA 95110-2704; 408/536-6000; Fax 408/536-6799; http://www.adobe.com

Apple Computer, Inc.
One Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; 888/295-0648, 408/996-1010; Fax 800/505-0171; http://www.apple.com

Daikin U.S. Comtec Laboratories
999 Grant Avenue, Novato, CA 94945; 415/893-7800; Fax 415/893-7807; http://www.daikindvd.com

Hitachi America, Ltd.
2000 Sierra Point Parkway, Brisbane, CA 94005-1835; 650/589-8300; Fax 650/244-7647; http://www.hitachi.com

Macromedia, Inc.
600 Townsend Street, Suite 310W, San Francisco, CA 94103; 800/326-2128, 415/252-2000; Fax 415/626-0554; http://www.macromedia.com

MultiMedia Technology Center (MTC)
435 North Main Street, Herkimer, NY 13350; 315/866-4639; Fax 315/866-4709; sales@mtc2000.com; http://www.mtc2000.com

Panasonic Industrial Company
Computer Components Group, 1600 McCandless Drive, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/945-5600; Fax 408/262-4214; consumerproducts@panasonic.com; http://www.panasonic.com

Pioneer New Media Technologies, Inc.
Optical Division, 2265 E. 220th Street, Long Beach, CA 90810; 800/444-6784, 310/952-2111; Fax 310/952-2990; http://www.pioneerusa.com

Sonic Solutions, Inc.
101 Rowland Way, Suite 110, Novato, CA 94945; 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; info@sonic.com; http://www.sonic.com

Spruce Technologies, Inc.
1054 South De Anza Boulevard, Suite 200, San Jose, CA 95129; 408/863-9700; Fax 408/863-9701; info@sprucetech.com; http://www.spruce-tech.com

Toshiba America Electronic Components
9775 Toledo Way, Irvine, CA 92618; 949/455-2000; Fax 949/859-3963; http://www.toshiba.com/taec


Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com) is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to NewMedia Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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