Home viewer at risk as digital disc war escalates
DVD is the next big thing in home entertainment, the successor to the CD. Or could be, if it can survive a sudden spat over the format writes BEN ROONEY
So why is there so much confusion about this new disc? And why are commentators already saying DVD may end up as another in the long and depressing catechism of failed formats before it's even on sale?
Digital Versatile Disc is an ultra info-dense CD. While the CD tucks away some 650Mb inside that 12cm shiny disc, the DVD has, in its most basic form, an impressive 2.6Gb. A 4.5Gb is also available, with even more to come. By the middle of the next decade the forum is predicting 10 times that figure in the same disc. The technology is extraordinary. So why the gloom?
The problem is what to do with it. It's not quite five solutions in search of a problem, but it might well end up that way. The disc is offered in five formats all of them, in theory, compatible; DVD-Video and Audio are obvious, DVD-ROM and DVD-R are the replacements for their CD counterparts, a read-only disc and a write-once, read-often disc (used for archives principally). And then there is DVD-RAM, the subject of a much-trumpeted conference held in Berlin last week.
In the short term, the one of most interest to the consumer is video. It is undeniably a great format. Quality is way ahead of a video recorder, discs don't wear out, and have surround sound. You get a better-than transmission quality film with the potential for multiple sound tracks, all on one disc, with options for cinema format screen, or regular TV. Hollywood loves it. It includes effective anti-pirating software and regional codes. These ensure a disc bought in one region of the world won't play anywhere else.
It would appear that despite the glaring drawback - it won't record - the video disc has defied critics. Launched in America last year, according to industry figures, nearly 200 000 players have been sold - insignificant compared with the mighty video recorder, but decidedly healthy compared with the take-up of the CD, which sold a tenth that number in the same period.
But then this picture of harmony started to break down. First there is Divx, an incompatible rival. Having paid $5 for the disc you can watch it for 48 hours, after which it locks. If you want to watch more, you pay more.
Disney and other big Hollywood players back the format since it cuts out the video rental market and gives them direct access to the consumer. However, its global success is unlikely. Since it uses high-grade encryption to protect the contents, it is not available for export.
But the real fissures appeared over the potential "killer-app" for DVD, the re-recordable disc. It will record sound, video, or computer programmes. There has been much speculation that this is device that will slay the mighty video and open the gates to the Holy Grail of convergence, a kind of grand unification theory of consumer electronics; the fusion of the home computer with the TV and hi-fi. Unfortunately, that's rot.
Video eats memory. And 2.6Gb may sound a lot, but it's not even enough for one film. Furthermore, recording video on to the disc takes prohibitively expensive equipment. It will be at least five years, and maybe more like 10, before you'll see one on the shelves at a price you want to pay. In its current form DVD-RAM is little more than a better floppy, albeit a great deal better.
Like Banquo's ghost, lurking at the Berlin conference was the vociferous presence of Philips and the spirit, if not the body, of Sony. They have led a faction in the Forum to develop a rival to the DVD-RAM. And suddenly there is another format war.
Since between them these two companies own key lucrative patents to the CD, some commentators argue this is nothing more than a cynical ploy to delay the introduction of DVD, so prolonging the life, and revenue, of the CD - a charge Philips denied. Unfortunately, their arguments for their rival format (unofficially called DVD+RW) are less than convincing - and seem to be little more than the official disc needs a caddy and theirs' doesn't.
So what is the consumer to make of all this? He finds himself in a war zone, and, as with all wars, it is the innocent who suffer. Expect casualties on the home front. So it was with VHS, Betamax and V2000, and with DAT, DCC and any other string of initials, so it may well be with DVD. Back the wrong side and you may be the one in the corner of the video shop picking through the Chuck Norris titles while everyone else gets to watch Cameron Diaz.
Unless you are a home cinema buff, or a specialist computer user, there is nothing in this for you yet. - ŠThe Telegraph, London