HANOVER, GERMANY (02/28/2000) - The next format war in the optical disc world -- the combat for the living room -- kicked off at CeBIT this week with the unveiling of working versions of both battling technologies.
In one corner is DVD-RAM (digital versatile disc-random access memory), the already established rewritable DVD format being used in the computer world.
Consumers will be able to read and write discs in existing DVD-RAM drives integrated into computers and yet-to-be-launched consumer recorders. But current DVD drives, such as DVD Video and PC DVD ROM, that don't accept the cartridge-style DVD-RAM discs will be off-limits to the format.
In the other corner is DVD+RW, a new format independent of the DVD Forum -- the industry alliance working on the format -- but backed by a handful of big name computer and consumer electronics companies. It comes as a bare disc -- no cartridge -- and features compatibility with DVD Video so any DVD drive will be able to read the discs, said its backers. This retains backwards compatibility with the existing installed base of DVD players, although this may turn out to be of little advantage as the base is relatively small.
Round one went to DVD-RAM.
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known by its Panasonic brand name, demonstrated here at CeBIT a working prototype home recorder. The machine accepts both 4.7G-byte, single-sided and 9.4G-byte, double-sided discs, the latter allowing for up to eight hours of VHS-quality video and just over two hours of DVD-quality video.
The use of DVD-RAM as a medium for domestic video recording is being backed by most of the big names in the DVD Forum including, most actively, Matsushita Electric, Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. The companies have been able to benefit from the previous development of LSI (large-scale integration) chips for DVD-RAM to produce working prototypes in the form of finished products.
The recorder premiered and demonstrated by Matsushita here looked every bit like a finished product as did DVD-RAM-based camcorder prototypes on show by Hitachi at Comdex in Las Vegas last November.
The six companies backing the new DVD+RW (digital versatile disc + rewritable) optical disc format -- Hewlett-Packard Co., Mitsubishi Chemical Corp., Philips Electronics NV, Ricoh Co. Ltd., Sony Corp. and Yamaha Corp. -- have not been so quick off the mark with prototypes.
The format, which isn't an official DVD-based system but is able to claim use of the term in its name from compatibility with DVD Video, has had to be designed from the ground up and that's why the prototype demonstrated here this week was the size of a suitcase.
But the fast development of good-looking prototypes is of little use other than public relations purposes.
The companies need to get the product to market and in this area the battle is much more closely matched.
Both Philips, backing DVD+RW, and Matsushita, supporting DVD-RAM, plan to launch consumer recorders in the last quarter of 2000, just in time for the holidays and end-of-year buying period. Kaoru Yanamoto, general manager of the Optical Storage Department 2 at Sony Corp., said his company had no current plans to launch machines. Prices are yet to be decided, although all concede the initial products will be expensive.
Matsushita was unwilling to divulge pricing plans and the DVD+RW group also dodged the question at a press conference, although executives were more forthcoming after the event.
"In the initial stage, the drives and the media will be very expensive -- maybe three to four times that of CD-RW," said Takeshi Matsui, corporate councilor for the disc, media and systems products division at Ricoh Co. Ltd., speaking to IDG News Service.
The current street price of the majority of CD-RW drives in Japan ranges from 20,000 yen to 35,000 yen (US$180 to $320).
"They will be about the same price as the first DVD Video players," said Robert van Eijk, vice president strategic alliances and business group marketing optical storage at Philips Components, a division of Philips Electronics North America. "We'll first be addressing the high end of the market. We're not willing to say VHS will be obsolete."
When Philips first introduced DVD Video players in the United States in mid-1997, its launch model was priced at US$549.