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standard deviations

DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, and the Writable DVD DTs

Dana J. Parker

January 2000 | I am a writable DVD junkie. I try to kick the habit, but every time I do, one of the participants in the so-called format war releases a long-anticipated announcement, and I'm hopelessly lost again, examining the technology, comparing and contrasting the issues of compatibility and capacity, considering the historical perspective, and speculating on the strategic market impact.

But as any twelve-stepper can tell you, admitting that you have a problem is the all-important first foot forward on the road to recovery. I know I have no one to blame but myself--I decided early on that I'd concentrate on the DVD rewritables, for a few very good reasons. One, I'd been doing CD-R and CD-ROM for 10 years, and when it went mainstream, it lost its kick for me. I craved stronger stuff. Two, I've never been much a of a videophile or audiophile, and I've never authored an application in my entire technical career, so that rules out blow-by-blow coverage of MPEG-2, AC-3, and DVD title development. Three, somebody had to do it. I could hardly have known how addictive it would become.

Case in point: the latest announcement from Hewlett-Packard regarding DVD+RW. This is the format that has caused so much consternation and contention within the DVD Forum, the one that directly challenges DVD-RAM--and the one that's been delayed now for something like two years. DVD+RW is the writable DVD format that won't go away, even though it hasn't even gotten here yet. And now, it appears that it won't be getting here for yet another 12 to 18 months.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Because of my well-known jones for DVD rewritables, I'm often asked to speak about them from a non-vendor perspective. Before every presentation, I try to contact the companies behind DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW, just to see if there's any news. Many conferences take place in the fall and this presents a problem: companies become amazingly reticent to talk to the press in the weeks prior to COMDEX. Like shy brides, they hide in their corporate boudoirs, primping and perfecting their product releases and technology breakthroughs, saving them up for the most important day of their product's life, when they will be lost in a flood of other technology announcements.

This year, though, Hewlett-Packard promised an announcement early in November. At the same time, their marketing rep commented that I hadn't written a really hard-hitting column in quite a while. Well, I said, nobody's done anything really noteworthy in quite a while--why don't you do something controversial and I'll write about that? I guess I got my wish, because on November 2, I was given a sneak preview of HP's startling announcement. The conversation went something like this: "Dana, we'd like to brief you on our forthcoming announcement. But first, just for fun, why don't you tell us what you think it ought to be?"

"That's easy. You're announcing that you've decided to skip over version 1.0, the 3.0GB, non-compatible DVD+RW format, and go right to version 2.0, with 4.7GB capacity and full read compatibility on all existing DVD-ROM drives and players."

"Yes, that's exactly what we're going to do."

You could have knocked me over with a J-card, if I hadn't been sitting down--this is like taunting a DTs-addled dipso with a whiff of single-malt scotch. "No kidding!" I said, "that's quite an announcement! So when will we see the product?"

"Not for another twelve to eighteen months."

As the market reps kindly explained to me in their inimitable marketing-speak, the world isn't ready for DVD+RW yet, even if I am--there aren't enough DVD-ROM drives installed. And it makes little sense to come out with a lower-capacity, non-compatible format when a full-capacity, fully compatible looms but a year away. Besides, they explained, market research shows that CD-RW is still experiencing phenomenal growth, which indicates that there's still plenty of time to make sure they're offering the right DVD rewritable format, at the right time, at the right price.

I have to admit, the strategy makes sense, and it's not as if it hadn't occurred to me before this. [See "This Changes Everything...Eventually, STANDARD DEVIATIONS, March 1998, p.88--Ed.] DVD-RAM, the other lower-capacity, non-compatible rewritable DVD format, is not exactly setting the world on fire, and the "other" contender, high-capacity, highly compatible DVD-RW not only isn't available yet, it's bound to be prohibitively expensive when it does appear.

But you also can't ignore the fact that part of the reason there isn't a large installed base of DVD-ROM drives out there yet is due at least in part to the perceived format war among the proposed and existing writable DVD formats, and to the fact that CD-R/RW sales have never been hotter. All marketing spin aside, what the announcement really says is that Hewlett-Packard has decided that the original DVD+RW format isn't worth bringing to market--it's not the contender they want to back. After nearly two years of anticipation and hype over the impending DVD rewritable format war, DVD+RW version 1.0 has reneged, and won't be entering the field of battle after all. I can just imagine the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth in the DVD-RAM camp--they wanted an open field, and now they've got it. Now let's see how well DVD-RAM can do with no opponents. It's no wonder I'm hooked on this stuff.

Dana J. Parker (danapark@ix.netcom.com) is a Denver, Colorado-based independent consultant and writer and regular columnist for STANDARD DEVIATIONS. She is also a contributing editor for EMedia, co-author of CD-ROM Professional's CD-Recordable Handbook (Pemberton Press, 1996), and chair of Online Inc.'s DVD PRO Conference & Exhibition. Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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