HP readies its rewritable DVD

After two years in the making, samples of DVD+RW will be distributed in June. How will the 3-GB format affect the market?

It's taken almost two years, but a new rewritable DVD format is about to be launched by Hewlett-Packard . DVD+RW, or “Plus R-W” for short, is capable of storing 3 GB on a single-sided disk. Its development was formally announced by HP and five other major storage vendors at Comdex in 1997. Samples are scheduled to be sent to OEMs and resellers in June with volume production and retail distribution due by October.

HP's model DVD Writer 3100i will list for $699. A SCSI drive, it will come bundled with one blank disk and with Adaptec software for recording and backing up data files. The disks, made by Verbatim, will cost $30 each.

Besides HP, the DVD+RW venture involves Mitsubishi Chemical (MCC), the parent company of Verbatim, and four drive-makers: Sony, Philips, Ricoh, and Yamaha.

However, a competing rewritable DVD format, called DVD-RAM, has been on the market for more than a year; it was developed jointly by Hitachi, Toshiba, and Matsushita/Panasonic. The DVD-RAM drive, which lists for $799, stores 2.6 GB per disk; two-sided disks are also available, enabling 5.2 GB per disk. And a second-generation DVD-RAM system with 4.7 GB per side capacity—and the ability to read and write the earlier disks—is scheduled for release by year's end. About the same time HP (and possibly at least one of its partners) will begin to sell its 3-GB DVD+RW.

HP’s market approach
Kevin Saldanha, HP's product manager for DVD+RW, feels the new format can compete successfully against DVD-RAM. "Our target market is power users in homes and businesses," he said. "Those are people who are continually running out of storage space for multimedia, graphics, CAD, document imaging, digital photography, and digital video. They're looking for a high-capacity, high-performance solution that they know won't become obsolete. And 3 GB is a huge amount of capacity. Besides, the market for rewritable DVD is still in its infancy."

Potential customers who have large files or databases to store, especially if they have experience with CD jukeboxes, may be looking toward DVD as a high-capacity replacement technology. For them, the leading jukebox manufacturers and jukebox software vendors are already offering DVD-RAM as an option.

But Saldanha confirmed that HP has decided to skip the jukebox market, at least initially. "DVD+RW could be used in jukeboxes, maybe at the low end at first," he said. "But the highest number [of units sold] will come from users who need high- capacity removable storage at a reasonable price. The broad market is still about stand-alone drives for power users, and that's who we're after."

Obstacles to DVD+RW’s success
Both DVD+RW and DVD-RAM share a common problem that is hampering market penetration: Neither format can be read by read-only DVD-ROM drives or DVD-Video players. (Somewhat simplified, their recording-layer surfaces don't reflect laser light as brightly as the data layers of factory-stamped DVD-ROM or DVD-Video disks.) Recordable CD-R and CD-RW drives are successful because there are millions of read-only CD-ROM drives in computers.

The problem for the manufacturers of recordable DVD formats is that their disks won't be generally read until the makers of DVD-ROM and DVD-Video drives add the necessary chips or circuitry. Toshiba has estimated that the changeover to accommodate DVD-RAM could cost manufacturers as much as $20 per drive. However, its partner Matsushita has released Panasonic-branded DVD-ROM drives that do read DVD-RAM, and it isn’t charging extra for the feature—although that could be a case of forward pricing: swallowing the difference now in expectation of lower production costs later.

But HP feels that making DVD-ROM and DVD-Video drives read DVD+RW disks will cost "less than a dollar," according to Saldanha. "Compared to DVD-RAM, the recording format of DVD+RW is closer to that of [factory-replicated] DVD-ROM. The market is under intense price pressure, and even a $5 increase may be too high." If HP is right, and if the DVD-ROM drive makers take the DVD+RW route, sales could shoot up quickly and challenge DVD-RAM.

DVD goes to the movies?
Another issue that users should watch for is the 4.7-GB capacity point, which DVD-RAM is scheduled to achieve by year's end. It takes 4.7 GB to store two hours of full-motion video with MPEG-2 compression, and that's what the Hollywood film studios wanted, so DVD could replace the VCR cassette as a distribution medium. But apparently none of the DVD+RW developers wanted to leapfrog over DVD-RAM and get to market first with a 4.7-GB system. "We're not going after movies,” Saldanha declared.

All right. But if that mass market isn't their target, will the DVD+RW group do what it takes to make their format a de facto standard in the office? They could, for example, preemptively flood the market with inexpensive read-only drives that accept DVD+RW media. That would be a costly, risky strategy. But they are confronting a competitor—DVD-RAM—that was launched first and has established a modest customer base.

Users will now have a choice in DVD recording formats. But there are times when having a choice isn't a blessing. Users, as is well known, want standards—but not lots of competing standards.

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