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MultiRead 2... And They Said it Couldn't Be Done

by Dana J. Parker

April 05, 2020 | Just about three years ago, two different optical storage formats entered the marketplace, faced with two different incompatibility problems. One was CD-RW media, the rewritable version of CD-R, which was not readable in most existing CD-ROM drives. The other was DVD, whose drives could not read CD-R. And just to confuse matters further, DVD devices could read CD-RW. Now, no one ever claimed that keeping track of the esoterica of optical media format interchangeability was easy, but these developments seemed more needlessly confusing than most. After 15 years of building inter-format compatibility between CD read-only and CD record-once media, we finally had a rewritable CD that couldn't be read in the installed base of read-only CD drives-but could be read in the new DVD drives. In addition, after roughly three years of wrangling over what form the next generation of higher-density optical disc would take, we discovered that, --oops--, you can't read CD-Rs in the new DVD drives. The choice was clear-get a new DVD drive and leave CD-R behind, or stay with your old CD drive and forget about using CD-RW.

There was a third choice, for those who understandably wanted to record CD once and rewrite and read it too, but it would take some considerable effort to achieve it. That is, convince manufacturers of optical drives to conform voluntarily to a drive specification that would enable consumers to read anything labeled "CD" in a CD or DVD drive. Never one to shy away from the seemingly impossible-which more often than not takes the form of getting rival manufacturers to work together for their mutual gain-the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) took on the project. Three years later, they have achieved their goal and then some.

OSTA announced on March 7 that 17 CD drive manufacturers, representing over 90% of CD drive shipments worldwide, have achieved compliance with the MultiRead specification. MultiRead can apply to DVD drives as well as CD drives, and its message is sensible and clear. Any CD or DVD drive that bears the MultiRead logo can read any kind of CD disc-CD Audio, CD-ROM, CD-R, or CD-RW.

This announcement is somewhat anti-climactic, since MultiRead CD-ROM drives have been around since the earliest days of CD-RW and they have very quietly and unobtrusively become a major part of the installed base of CD drives. The real news in the announcement is the next step in inter-format compatibility, MultiRead 2, which will be used to designate DVD drives that can read rewritable DVD media.

In January 1999, OSTA Writable formed its DVD Subcommittee with the mission to create recommended guidelines for making DVD drives that can read "all proposed writable DVD media specifications." Shortlt thereafter, a multipage "memo" entitled "Is OSTA Good For DVD?"--purportedly written by a Matsushita engineer--was disseminated by email to various industry news agencies and questioned the objectivity of OSTA's effort. Subsequently, almost an entire issue of Mass Storage News (February 4, 2021) was devoted to debunking the claims in the Matsushita memo-including the claim that it was written by a Matsushita engineer (it was, in fact, generated by an outside PR agency). At the first meeting of the Writable DVD Subcommittee, only one set of rewritable media read specifications-DVD+RW's-were submitted to the group. The manufacturers of DVD-RAM (Matsushita, Hitachi, and Toshiba) and DVD-RW (Pioneer) drives abstained-in Pioneer's case because the specification for DVD-RW was incomplete.

Now, a little over a year later, OSTA announces that the MultiRead 2 specifications and test plans are available, and that "MultiRead 2 will enable manufacturers of DVD drives to ensure read compatibility with the industry's first rewritable DVD format--2.6GB DVD-RAM." Who'da thunk it? OSTA also announced that the MultiRead 2 spec will be updated as additional 4.7GB capacity rewritable DVD formats (such as DVD-RW and DVD+RW) enter the market. Even more promising, OSTA promises to "evaluate the read compatibility requirements for consumer applications of DVD products, such as DVD players, DVD-based camcorders and video recorders, as well as devices yet to come."

When the OSTA Writable DVD Subcommittee was first announced, hardly anyone thought things would turn out this way, let alone so soon. Those who objected most strongly to the effort-the makers of DVD-RAM drives and media-will be its greatest beneficiaries. Ironically, those who stood to gain the most from it a year ago-Pioneer and the companies behind DVD+RW (Sony, Philips, and Hewlett Packard)-are now engaged in making media compatible to existing drives, rather than drives that can read new media.

My, what a difference a year makes.

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