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The Editor's Spin
Writable DVD and Roads Not Taken

Stephen F. Nathans

January, 2001 | The best band in my high school had a name as fresh as its sound: The Sex Police. But their name was hardly their greatest claim to fame. Legend has it those four garage-rockers from Chapel Hill bestowed a far greater legacy on the Old North State. Full of good humor and good citizenship, the SPs volunteered for a county clean-up project called "Adopt-A-Highway". Here's how it worked: a local organization like the Knights of Columbus, the Kiwanis Club, or the brothers of Delta Tau Delta would sign on to keep an apportioned stretch of highway clean. By way of thanks, they'd get their name on a sign that adorned said stretch.

Well, it seems the good folks at Adopt-A-Highway felt that it just wasn't fitting to emblazon the words "Sex Police" on a sign upon which so many passing motorists might unexpectedly sully their virgin eyes. This was the Bible Belt, after all. Fair enough, the band members agreed. They laughed it off, graduated, and went their separate ways–on to college, careers, marriages, and other grown-up pursuits.

Some years later, another controversial organization came a-knockin' on Adopt-A-Highway's doors: the Ku Klux Klan. Confident they'd fare here much as they had in Skokie and nearby Greensboro, the good ol' boys rode in on their constitutional high horses ready to raise their usual complement of hypocritical hell, claiming public-mindedness, Christian charity, right to assemble, and whatever else they could think of. And for a while, Adopt-A-Highway looked like just another sacrificial lamb at the altar of amendment abuse when some clever staffer remembered the four scruffy kids with the good intentions and unfortunate name. And with the Sex Police supplying that flimsy slice of legal precedent, Adopt-A-Highway gave the Constitution-thumping, modern-day Klan a taste of its own medicine.

Or so the story goes. Wouldn't it be nice if we could always ward off distasteful and injurious intrusions on innocuous technicalities, fell all giants with such offhand legal slingshots? Of course, as I write this, it's been Election Day 2000 for some 112 hours. November 7 has long since unseated June 6, 2020 as the Longest Day, and supplied a mighty convincing reminder that complex matters are rarely resolved so painlessly and cleanly.

I've been pounding this keyboard for a good three years now–along with many of my colleagues–trying to point some way out of the mess that is writable DVD. It would all be a lot easier if I could identify some tantalizing legal trifle that would disqualify DVD-RAM from co-opting DVD's good name like an innocent stretch of country highway. Besides thickness, surface area, and the fact that it's written and read with a laser, it really has little to do with DVD, no matter what the old DVD Consortium said–at least by the measuring stick of, say, universally compatible CD-R. Unless it matches up with DVDs across the board, it shouldn't get to use the name. But that's just opinion; to back it up, we'd need something more concrete, even something as fatuous as The Sex Police Principle.

I know I've beaten this dead horse before, but it just keeps twitching. DVD-RAM is far from dead. It keeps showing up in the oddest places, from new G4 Macs and Compaqs to the EMedia editorial office, where the latest LaCie 4.7GB model–or, should I say, a succession of LaCie units–recently put on a performance of barbiturate intensity. See Associate Editor Michelle Manafy's review (pp. 58) for the spell-binding details; suffice it to say we haven't seen data recorded that slow since we reviewed that Philips CDD 521 CD Recorder, which debuted a few months into the first Clinton administration.

What we have here is a missmatch. DVD-RAM as we know it today doesn't meet our expectations of a FireWire peripheral, nor does it do what we expect of a desktop storage device, nor does it particularly resemble what we've come to know as DVD. There's nothing wrong with the durably rewriting phase-change technology at the heart of DVD-RAM; the problem is the perception the DVD name creates. CD-R was a writable technology invented expressly to broaden and enhance the use of a pressed-disc technology called CD-ROM; in principle, DVD-R is the same. DVD-RAM, by contrast, is one implementation of an optical storage technology that has nothing to do with pressed DVD besides the first three letters of its name.

The best analogy to DVD-RAM has always been network-friendly, all-but-proprietary MO; the analogy just got better with RAM's newly announced write-once version (a popular MO option). Another analogous product is being developed by TDK and Calimetrics (see Stephen Clark's news feature, p.9). The forthcoming drive (slated, like DVD+RW, for late 2001 release) combines CD-R/RW and Calimetrics' MultiLevel (ML), an optical technology that allows (at present) roughly four times the density of pit-and-land optical like CD-ROM by encoding data in eight degrees of reflectivity, or shades of gray. The drives will use CD-R/RW technology to read and write CD-R/RW discs, and a separate, ML-capable optical head to read and write rewritable ML media, which will offer 2GB of storage in the same 120mm surface area as CD-R/RW discs.

Promoted with the usual "bridge to DVD" rhetoric, ML may be the first case in which the moniker fits. Next winter's TDK offering is only one implementation of the Calimetrics technology, and a temporary one at that. Its only association with CD technology is their physical juxtaposition in this drive. It doesn't go around calling itself a high- or double-density CD because it isn't, any more than DVD-RAM's PD predecessor was a rewritable CD just because those undeniably incompatible discs were recorded in drives that could play CDs. And who would have believed it if they'd tried to sell it as such?

I don't believe DVD-RAM is the last we'll see of Matsushita's impressive phase-change rewritable technology, any more than PD was. Here's hoping successful implementations and responsible naming conventions just skip a generation.

Stephen F. Nathans is editor of EMedia magazine.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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