DVD dispute erupts

Three tech giants introduce rival format

TOKYO — The much-heralded advance of the digital videodisc (DVD) into the homes and minds of the world’s electronics consumers may have hit a speed bump; and it’s a bump that looks familiar to consumers and manufacturers alike.

Although the audio and video standards involved in mastering and manufacturing DVDs were agreed to months ago, a new dispute — reminiscent of the Beta-VHS videocassette wars of 20 years ago — is emerging over the definitive format for rewritable DVDs, which may eventually comprise 30% of the total DVD market.

The majority of the members of an international industrial consortium are currently backing one format, while a triumvirate of tech giants — Sony Corp., Philips Electronics NV and Hewlett-Packard Corp. — are throwing their weight behind a competing format.

The 10-member consortium known as the DVD Forum last week applied to the European Computer Manufacturers Assn., an international standards body, for approval of their DVD random access memory (DVD-RAM, or DVD-Rewritable) format.

But now the Sony/Philips/HP group are asking that the same standards board approve their format for a 12cm optical disc that uses an optics technology that would render it incompatible with the other, already-approved DVD-R format.

For its part, Sony said it still supports the Forum’s work, but it will not be making any DVD-R products based on the group’s format. The company said its optical disc has greater capacity, at 3 gigabytes per side, than the agreed-upon DVD-R format, at 2.6 gigabytes per side.

Sony also said its disc offers better compatibility with computer-data and video DVDs than the DVD-R format.

Such a squabble comes at a most inopportune time for DVDs, which only recently began convincing consumers to purchase read-only players for home theater systems and desktop computers alike. (Since they offer much greater capacity than CDs and CD-ROMs, DVDs are seen as their eventual replacements.)

The market for such products was never small, and will only grow larger, regardless of format. Japanese industry estimates say that by 2000 the market for DVDs could be as large as $25 billion, with DVD-Rs accounting for as much as 30% of the total.

But with the format contest being set up, consumers are very likely to wait and see how the battle turns out — which will put a significant crimp in any such projections.

One interesting aspect of the battle is that Sony and Philips are part of the DVD Forum, and worked to develop a DVD-R format in an April meeting in Tokyo. Their announcement of a competing DVD-R format did not please Forum members, such as the group’s chair, Toshiba Corp.

“We don’t know why Sony, Philips and HP made that announcement,” a Toshiba spokeswoman said of the competing disc. “We believe we reached an agreement on the format in April.”

As the international standards commission hears arguments about which format to support, electronics companies are gearing up to put DVD-R computer products on the market later this year.

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