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standard deviations

The Writable Madness Marches On

Dana J. Parker

April 2000 | Here's a development guaranteed to send you screaming into the night: the DVD Forum, in its wisdom, has decided to split the forthcoming 4.7GB version 2.0 of the DVD-Recordable specification into two incompatible parts. Yes, you read that right. The writable DVD mess just got a whole lot messier.

The plan, according to the DVD Forum's Web site (http://www.dvdforum.com), is to create two versions of DVD-R, one that uses 650nm lasers and one that uses 635nm lasers. The existing DVD-R spec, which is in version 1.9, calls for 635nm lasers. So far, Pioneer is the only company making products that use this spec. In version 2.0, the spec will split into two versions, one for "authoring" and one for "general use." Apparently, the one for general use will be the 650nm version, but its release will be delayed while copy protection measures for it are hammered out. The two versions of the spec will define two different types of wavelength-specific media, neither of which will be writable on the other drive. It's claimed that the "general use," 650nm media, once written, will be physically read-compatible with existing DVD read-only drives and settop players.

Still with me? To review, then, we have DVD-RAM, recently demonstrated at CES as 4.7-billion-byte-capacity home video recording media and drive, due this summer from Panasonic. Media recorded on this drive will be logically and physically incompatible with most existing read-only drives and all standalone players.

We have DVD-RW, recently demonstrated by Zenith and Pioneer in 4.7-billion-byte-capacity home recorders and media, due later this year. Media recorded on these drives will be logically but not physically incompatible with existing read-only drives and standalone players.

In addition, we have DVD+RW, which was demonstrated at CES by invitation only, and has been delayed until later this year, at the very soonest, as a 4.7-billion-byte-capacity home video recorder and media. Media recorded on this drive will purportedly be compatible both physically and logically with most existing read-only DVD drives and standalone players. None of the media for any of these drives will be recordable or rewritable on any of the others.

And finally, we have DVD-R, which up until now stood alone with no competitors, and followed the excellent example of CD-R in placing the burden (and the initial cost) of compatibility on the media and the recorder, not on the existing hardware base. DVD-R, the one haven of sanity in the Bedlam of writable DVD formats, will henceforward be just as conflicted as the rest of the inmates. We will end up with no fewer than five mutually incompatible kinds of writable DVD media (not counting the earlier lower-capacity versions, or two-sided versus one-sided media for each format): DVD-R (authoring), DVD-R (general), DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW.

There is some, albeit infinitesimal, method to this madness. Lasers of the 650nm variety are cheaper and in wider use and manufacture than 635nm lasers--and not coincidentally, one of their major manufacturers is Matsushita, Panasonic's parent and DVD-RAM's biggest proponent. Pioneer and Zenith's recently announced DVD-RW home video recorders use 650nm lasers to write to DVD-RW phase-change media, which is not wavelength-specific. Neither of these recorders will record to dye-based DVD-R media. When professional--as opposed to consumer--DVD-RW drives do appear, they will use either 650nm lasers, or 635nm lasers, or both.

Future DVD-RAM drives could conceivably combine the ability to record DVD-RW and 650nm DVD-R media, as well as DVD-RAM media--but not 635nm DVD-R media. Future DVD-R/RW recorders that can write to 650nm DVD-R could be cheaper than their 635nm versions. According to Andy Parsons, senior VP of technical support and product development for Pioneer, neither the 3.95-billion-byte or 4.7- billion-byte media or drives currently in use will be orphaned. Presumably, this means that if you want to just pretend this isn't happening and stick with 635nm DVD-R media and drives, you can do so, and your investment in the technology is still safe. Let's be grateful for small blessings.

The DVD Forum's site leaves quite a bit to be desired in the explanation of the reason for this split in the format, and a news story from the February 6 AsiaBizTech was even more inscrutable. It's unclear how the DVD Forum--or any other force, for that matter--could hope to preclude the use of the professional, 635nm, "DVD-R for authoring" devices and media for anything but authoring. It's also unclear why anyone requiring DVD-R for "general use"--supposedly archiving, storage, and the like, rather than publishing or authoring--would opt for one over the other. If compatibility is the key, why not get a DVD-R/RW, with a 635nm laser, and forego the incompatible DVD-RAM capability?

I give up. There's no sense in trying to make sense of what the DVD Forum does with writable DVD. It's also abundantly clear that when the Forum's representatives say, as they so often do in its promotional conference presentations, that it always supports the "single, best" format, they don't really mean it. Furthermore, when they urge others not to confuse their customers, what they really mean is, "You can't possibly hope to confuse them as much as we do."

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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