Disc jockeying

We don’t talk about the laser disc player around my father anymore.

There it sits, in the middle of Mom and Dad’s living room, a tombstone for a format that never took off. He bought it in the early 90s, at a cost of around $700 (a fortune for us at the time) and was part of a package that

included a large stereo system. “”This here’s the new thing,”” I remember him telling me when I came over to visit. “”You’ll see these take over the VCRs, for sure.”” A product marketing manager couldn’t have said it better.

We spent months schlepping to a tiny variety store in a nearby town, the only place where you could rent laser discs. Apart from having to turn them over mid-way through a movie like the old LP records, it worked pretty well. We just couldn’t figure out why more titles weren’t available. Of course, back then we didn’t anticipate the ascent of the DVD format, which turns five years old this week.

When we first began covering DVDs in Computer Dealer News, there was debate over whether the “”V”” stood for video or versatile (we went with versatile, which is what the so-called architect of DVD, Warren Lieberfarb, used). There was also a lot of debate over its potential. While most of the achievements to date have been in the consumer segment, DVD provides a useful case study in how emerging storage formats are hyped, and how they overcome that hype to reach widespread adoption.

Storage experts have been predicting that DVDs will replace all forms of secondary media including CD, tape and magneto-optical since at least 1997, but it wasn’t until the following year that industry support began to swell. At what was then called Comdex PacRim in Vancouver, Microsoft Canada began showing off a version of Windows 98 with DVD support natively built into the OS. This was important for developers who had been cautious about releasing software titles in the format. Intel also showed leadership in this area, setting out a development API called Media Control Interface (MCI).

The technology industry’s zeal, however, was thrown off course by the movie industry, whose fears sounded much like those of the music recording industry’s peer-to-peer nightmares. The specifications that led to the DVD standard were hammered out between two consortiums, Warner Bros. and Toshiba as well as Sony and Phillips. The infighting between these two groups would take up too much space here (though it could probably be stored on DVD), but those battles were just the beginning. Movie studios feared the loss of their copyright in the new format, just as they had with VCRs. At the time, Legacy Storage Systems president John Whyte wrote to CDN: “”We in the computer industry don’t care about movie politics, we just want to move forward and create better data storage solutions.””

That may be true, but the computer industry is just as guilty of setting back the progress of those solutions. The skirmish to watch right now is the one between the DVD+RW Alliance and the DVD Forum, which are both trying to create a standard for rewritable and recordable DVD. The DVD+RW Alliance was in hot water earlier this month when members like Hewlett-Packard admitted products conforming to the standard would not be compatible with the less expensive DVD+R. This was an about-face from promises HP and others had made about compatibility. Now early adopters who took the plunge have only one upgrade option available to them: throw out the old drive and buy a new one.

Standards development is often messy, but customers should never become the victims. I think DVDs have become popular in the consumer film market because of all the little surprises — the commentary from directors, the blooper reel, the trailers. In the commercial market, no one likes surprises, especially if it’s the news that they’ve wasted their money.

That’s probably why Dad’s never shelled out for a DVD player, but I’m not going to ask him. It’s smaller than a white elephant, but that laser disc player is still the big dumb beast we all try desperately to ignore.

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Shane Schick
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