DVD Wars: Episode 2

It seems that DVD writer standards have just been settled, now that the DVD “Multi” format has been adopted by all vendors. Yet storm clouds are gathering on the horizon as optical drive vendors battle for acceptance of their standard for the next generation of DVD. In the words of the great philosopher

Yogi Berra, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

It has been less than 12 months since the optical drive industry settled on a single format for DVD writers. At one point, there were three competing formats: DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. DVD-RAM fell by the wayside fairly early in the game, but both the DVD-RW and DVD+RW vendors remained stubbornly beholden to their own technology for years. The lack of a single standard delayed the adoption of DVD writers, as users did not want to be stuck with an obsolete technology.

Sony broke the impasse with the introduction of the “Multi” drive, which was able to use both DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats. After witnessing Sony’s early success with this product, DVD-RW vendors quickly adopted the Multi format. HP, as the originator of the DVD+RW format was slower to get on board, but even they finally moved to the Multi format. Now this format is the de facto standard for the industry.

While DVD discs provide a seven-fold increase in capacity over Compact Discs, our appetite for content continues to grow. Even at 4.7 GB, DVDs are proving inadequate to hold all of the special features and other content vendors are offering, resulting in multiple discs for applications. We still need more capacity, and this requires a new optical drive format.

There are two contenders for the next generation of DVD: High Density DVD or HD-DVD and Blu-Ray DVD. Both of these formats use a blue laser, rather than the current red laser light. The blue laser allows data to be written more densely on the disc, which increases the total capacity. Furthermore, both formats allow for single or double layers to be written on the same side of the disk, permitting a further doubling of capacity. It is expected that both standards will allow for backward compatibility with current CD and DVD technology. There are substantial differences between the two standards (naturally) with different vendors each promoting their preferred format.

Toshiba is the banner carrier for HD-DVD, but Sanyo, Hitachi, Pioneer and Sony have all participated in its development. This format allows capacities up to 15 GB, or 30 GB at double density. A triple layer format has been proposed but not accepted, that would increase potential capacity to 45 GB, or more than nine times the current capacity of DVD. This format is reportedly more similar to current DVD technology, and is claimed to be cheaper to upgrade manufacturing equipment than Blu-ray. HD-DVD has been ratified as the “official” standard of the DVD forum, but it was a close vote and Blu-ray was not considered. Microsoft recently endorsed the HD-DVD standard as its preferred choice for the new technology.

Not to be outdone, the Blu-ray disc association has accumulated an impressive list of optical drive vendors for its technology including world leader LG, HP, Apple and Sony who seems to be playing both sides of the field. Perhaps more importantly, several major content providers have endorsed this standard as well, including Disney and Twentieth Century Fox. Blu-ray offers higher capacity than HD-DVD with 25 GB on a single layer and up to 50 GB using double layer technology. The association projects that this technology will have a useful lifespan of 10 to 15 years, which will more than pay back its higher initial manufacturing changeover costs. The major advantage for content providers is that strong copy protection is a mandatory part of the standard.

As both formats have both strengths and weaknesses, there is no clear technological leader. The history of the technology market shows that the eventual winner is decided by many factors, and that even superior technology does not guarantee acceptance. Although there have been rumours of a compromise, both sides seem to be prepared for a long battle. So where does that leave the channel?

Unfortunately the channel does not have much influence to facilitate a quick resolution. The only option is to remain informed and wait for the dust to settle. In the meantime, the onus is on the channel to educate users about the competing standards when products do become available. As it will be several years before the next generation of products becomes available, we can hope that vendors have learned from past mistakes, and will co-operate to develop one common standard for the industry.

Jennifer Ewen holds the Certified Market Research Professional designation from the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association. She is the Senior Market Analyst for optical drives with Evans Research Corporation. She can be reached at jewen@evansresearch.com

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