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Vendors: End Of Rewritable DVD Storm In Sight

The fog surrounding the rewritable DVD market will not fully clear away in 2003, but there is an excellent chance that some light will be cast on what has developed into an extremely confusing situation for consumers.

Manufacturers said it is highly unlikely that one format or another will end up dominating the market this year, but the most likely scenario is that all the formats will end up going forward and not end with a victor, like VHS defeating Betamax video. Instead DVD-RAM, DVD-R/-RW, DVD+R/+RW along with DVD Multi, which combines DVD-RAM and the -R/-RW formats and Sony’s Dual Drive, that burns the dash and plus media, should coexist in the market in some fashion.

Paul Liao, Panasonic’s chief technology officer, said the situation will likely mirror what has taken place in the camcorder category, where VHS-C and 8mm products have sold side by side with each attracting a distinct type of customer.

Sony’s position is similar in that it believes the plus and dash formats will sell together for at least a year, which is why it created the Dual Drive, said Bob DeMoulin, Sony’s marketing manager for storage devices. However, at some point consumers will settle on either the plus or minus media and then that hardware should predominate. Their decision could be based on several factors such as which is less expensive or more readily available, he said.

Despite this theory each of the companies supporting the various formats believe their version is superior. The trick for each camp will be convincing consumers.

“Our position is people are interested in the features, not the format. It must be compatible and able to contain video and still images on the same disc and have good defect management,” said Liao, adding DVD-RAM fits this mold.

He added that DVD-RAM’s best feature is its random access ability that allows data to be swapped around on the disc just like a hard drive. Panasonic also pointed to the hardened nature of DVD-RAM media — it comes encased in a plastic caddy — and the fact that several home players are already on the market. On the downside, DVD-RAM is not compatible with many older DVD players or PC drives, although this is somewhat offset by adding DVD-R functionality to drives because it can be played by most of the installed base of players and drives.

The DVD+RW team, led by Ricoh, Philips and Hewlett-Packard, is pushing the point that +RW media is compatible with the vast majority of the installed base of DVD-ROM drives and home players. Yasushi Okutsu, Ricoh’s general manager, personal multimedia products, reinforced the DVD+RW Alliance’s stance that its media has a higher rate of backward compatibility and that it has gained support from industry software giant Microsoft. Microsoft will include support for DVD+RW in an upcoming version of Windows XP, enabling drag-and-drop capability. Now a software application must be used to transfer data from a PC to the DVD media. Okutsu also pointed to the fact that Dell and Hewlett-Packard support the format, giving it a huge edge in the PC market.

The support +RW has received from the world’s primary PC vendors has basically locked the DVD-RAM and -R companies out of that market. Apple is the lone top-tier computer vendor fully on the -R/-RW side with its SuperDrive.

Sony is sitting has staked out an interesting position. It is an original supporter of the +RW format, but has introduced DVD-R drives in some Vaio PCs and developed the Dual Drive that is initially slated for the PC market. The first Dual Drive, the DRU-500A and the external DRX-500UL, started shipping in October and November, respectively. DeMoulin reported that a total of about 40,000 drives shipped by early December and the company was unable to keep up with demand, a situation unlikely to change until early this year. Sony Vaios will come equipped with the drive starting this year.

“The Dual Drive gives people the confidence to buy something now,” he said.

Sony has switched all its rewritable DVD production over to the Dual Drive.

Ricoh and Sony do not see the Dual Drive as the final answer to the format situation, but instead as a bridge product that will run until the format picture becomes clearer. One strike against the Dual Drive is its cost, Because of the various licensing fees that have to be paid to the +R and -R vendors.

DeMoulin agreed, saying the $349 suggested retail price for the internal version is pricey and attracting just the early-adopter crowd. This will change when the price drops below the $300 level sometime next year.

“Then you will see the rank-and-file consumers start buying,” he said.

Panasonic’s Liao did speak highly of the concept, which is similar to Panasonic’s Multi Drive, with one proviso, that it cannot play or burn DVD-RAM media.

“If they had added RAM then I would have patted them on the back,” he said, adding that there is no plan to add +RW capability to the Multi Drive.

DeMoulin countered saying DVD Multi sales were primarily being driven by people interested in its DVD-R/-RW capability and not DVD-RAM.

New developments expected from the +RW side, said Okutsu, are a slim-line drive for notebooks, additional vendors producing Dual Drive products and a partnership between Ricoh and Thomson to create a home player for delivery in 2003. The last development could prove crucial to the format battle.

“The video recorder product will be the deciding factor that decides who will win the war,” he said.

If this is true the DVD-RAM and dash vendors have an advantage since Panasonic and Hitachi sold these products for most of 2002. Philips jumped into the game a bit later with a +RW home recorder that came out about mid-year.

Panasonic believes the wider availability of the DMR-HS2 combination hard disk drive and DVD-RAM recorder for a $999 suggested retail should give it an even greater edge.