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OSTA Makes Play for MultiPlay

Stephen F. Nathans

December 22, 2020 | Winter meetings are an exciting time. Even in businesses outside Major League Baseball, in which there is genuinely nothing else going on at that point in the year, there's a feeling of off-season-ness that somehow seems more conducive to getting things done because realisitically or not, there seems to be less in the way.

The early December gathering of the Optical Storage Technology Association, which happened at roughly the same time and in roughly the same place as baseball's winter meetings, yielded two interesting developments for the optical media world. One was the formation of the High Density Storage Association (HDSA), a new affinity group formed to provide a meeting point for manufacturers, integrators, and users of multi-drive automated optical storage libraries. Here's hoping this group can capitalize on encouraging recent developments like growing Linux support and the advent of WORM-style DVD-RAM and make optical storage libraries a mainstay of the corporate IT world.

This most recent OSTA meeting also begat "MultiPlay," a new CD compatibility specification intended to assure that CD-R and CD-RW discs can be played in consumer CD and DVD players. Proposed by controller and chip champ Oak Technology, Inc., MultiPlay essentially builds on the MultiRead specification--a mandate for CD-R/RW read capability that succeeded gloriously in making virtually all generations of CD-ROM drives that followed it R/RW-compatible--and extends it to consumer audio CD players and set-top DVDs. Naturally, MultiPlay compatibility extends only to CD-R and CD-RW discs written in formats that consumer boxes recognize in pressed media. To be MultiPlay-compliant, players must have the following capabilities:

  • CD players capable of only CD-Audio must play CD-Audio on CD-R and CD-RW discs
  • CD players capable of CD-Audio and CD-Text must play CD-Audio and CD-Text on CD-R and CD-RW discs
  • DVD players capable of only CD-Audio (in addition to DVD-Video and/or DVD-Audio) must play CD-Audio on CD-R and CD-RW discs
  • DVD players capable of CD-Audio and VideoCD must play CD-Audio and VideoCD on CD-R and CD-RW discs.

As with MultiRead, along with MultiPlay will come a logo that will inform users of whether the players they are buying are MultiPlay-compatible. According to OSTA MultiRead Subcommittee chair Felix Nemirovsky, "MultiPlay will in a similar way accomplish much-needed CD-R and CD-RW disc compatibility in consumer CD and DVD players." (Nemirovsky recently left Plextor for Oak Technology and its good to know that he is still advancing the CD-R/RW cause.)

The MultiPlay proposal comes at an interesting time. Clearly inspired by the explosion of the market for Audio CD recording--which has in turn been driven by the enormous popularity of MP3 audio acquired by any means necessary--MultiPlay certainly meets a market populated by consumers who are much more savvy about how digital music is obtained, recorded, and manipulated than at any time in CD's existence. Still, it faces a far more significant challenge than MultiRead if it is to have the desired impact. MultiRead's biggest impact, arguably, was in areas where it was invisible to the user. Just as most CD-ROM titles "sold" actually shipped in PC bundles, most desktop CD-ROM drives in use before and after the advent of MultiRead were factory-installed in integrated PC systems. What's more, users who were making CD-Rs and CD-RWs in drives bought separately, whether internal or external models, could always use those drives to read CD-RWs as needed, and all drives capable of writing to CD-RW media were by definition CD-RW-read-capable, i.e., MultiRead-compatible. CD-R was never the issue there; MultiRead never did much either way to improve the odds of CD-R compatibility, which was already mighty high by the time CD-RW showed up and created the perceived MultiRead mandate. What's more, packet-written CD-RW discs always had read restrictions that had little to do with the physical capabilities of the drives used to read them.

Plus, MultiRead swept the drive industry pretty fast, as I recall. And it was certainly great to have, although given the slow adoption of CD-RW itself (by which I mean specifically the sporadic use of CD-RW media in the enormously successful recordable drives used 99% for CD-R) I'm not sure how much of a difference it ever made. Not that I'd ever call it unnecessary--manufacturers always affirmed that it cost "mere pennies per drive" to implement, and any roadblock that can be removed so cheaply to guarantee free and easy recordable media use is a no-brainer in my book. But I doubt that discovering the odd drive that lacked physical compatibility with CD-RW media ever rankled users the way the first generation of CD-RW-capable, CD-R-resistant DVD-ROM drives did.

On the other hand, MultiPlay has a much greater potential impact than MultiRead, even if it's somehow less "necessary" to keeping the machinery of industry churning. For DVD-Video (or DVD-Audio, take your pick) to fulfill its grand destiny of replacing CD-Audio, it will need to do everything that users demand of CD-Audio. And increasingly, that means playing audio CD-Rs. CD-R support in consumer DVD drives is so devoid of rhyme or reason at this juncture that some kind of standard has to be imposed if DVD-Video is ever to serve as CD-Audio's more versatile successor, which is far more logical and symmetrical than trying to fit it into the VCR mold. But will stamping MultiPlay logos on consumer CD and DVD players (and presumably promoting the initiative at CES and elsewhere) make looking for those logos automatic for the buying public? Probably not. But music fans are getting used to knowing more acronyms and other techie stuff these days, since it's instrumental to how the hobbyists who will be most affected by MultiPlay get their music these days. So it certainly ought to help.

One interesting aspect of MultiPlay is that it emerges as OSTA is defining a new logical disc format called CDA (Compressed Digital Audio), which is designed to ensure quick playability of MP3, WMA, and compressed audio files in other formats. According to OSTA's MultiPlay press release, the various manifestations of MP3 playback capability in CD and DVD players have produced slow and unsatisfying results. One element of MultiPlay compatibility will be support for the CDA format, which is designed to speed and standardize navigation of compressed-file audio discs in a manner comparable to Red Book audio discs. Clearly, the intent here shows perceptiveness on OSTA's part: if consumer DVD player manufacturers can't agree on a standard way to do user-recorded audio in the formats users prefer, they'll never capitalize on the exploding home audio market as DVD clearly can do if its cards are played right.

But what of the CD-RW aspect of MultiPlay, which gets equal play with CD-R in OSTA materials? Says here CD-RW isn't really part of the discussion. Footnote-worthy at best, as always. Who makes audio discs on CD-RWs, except chumps who got duped by the home recorder hype and thought that was the only way they'd ever get to make their own music discs, then found themselves excluded from the coolest, consumer-est part of the whole home audio recording scene (Web-downloaded MP3)? There's a tiny bit of good news in the tiny world of CD-RW-based audio recording: if MultiPlay takes hold, CD-RW will no longer be a Philips-exclusive proprietary audio medium. Not that they were proprietors of much property there.

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