DVDs Aren't Ready for Home Movies Yet

A promising consumer technology is hobbled by too many formats, too little equipment

I have finally achieved convergence. After wrapping up a video of a trip to Hawaii using Apple's iMovie 2 editing software, I clicked a button that saved the movie for Apple's new iDVD program, then fired up that application and "burned" a disk. I popped the DVD out of a Macintosh and into a Sony DVD player, and the movie appeared on my TV set with all the quality of the digital video original. The good news is that it was just that simple. The bad news is that the chances that you will be able to do this anytime soon are not very good.

Few consumer technologies have had as painful a gestation as recordable DVDs. And the struggle won't end just because the first drives, made by Pioneer, are finally shipping in a $3,500 Power Mac G4 from Apple (AAPL ) and a $2,300 Presario 7000 from Compaq (CPQ ). No less than four recordable DVD formats are being promoted by different companies and coalitions, confusing people and impeding development of the volume market that would make the technology affordable.

What consumers need is very simple. DVDs, like CDs, are great for storing data: documents, pictures, video clips, or digital music. They hold 4.7 gigabytes, the equivalent of nearly seven CDs. But their most promising use is video production. So a DVD writer should produce disks that can be read in both computer drives and standard DVD players.

Apple's software makes it simple for anyone who can string camcorder shots into a home movie to convert it to DVD format. There's a lot more work to do on the Windows side. The Pinnacle Systems (PCLE ) Studio DV editing software chosen by Compaq is fine. But Pinnacle's DVDit LE program was designed for professional producers. While it offers many more options than Apple's iDVD, it is orders of magnitude harder to use.

LIMITED SUPPLY. The software will get better. I'm less hopeful that the computer and consumer electronics industries will end a long-running feud over recordable DVD formats. The Pioneer DVD-R drives only let a disk be written once--an approach that has proved popular in the CD field, where write-once disks cost less than 50 cents apiece. The cost of blank DVD-Rs, currently up to $20 apiece, should drop dramatically once mass production starts. But first demand will have to increase substantially. For the time being, DVD recorders will remain scarce. Apple and Compaq have bought up most of this year's production of the Pioneer drives, which can also read and write CDs. Limited quantities of the drives alone will go on sale in May for about $850.

Computer manufacturers seem committed to the notion of rewriteable disks. But they've had a terrible time bringing the drives to market. Currently, you can buy something called a DVD-RAM, sold under assorted brand names but made mainly by Panasonic. Drives start at about $500, and disks cost around $25 each. Trouble is, DVD-RAM disks can't be read by most DVD players, making them useful mostly for backup and for offline storage of very large files, such as digitized video.

PROMISES, PROMISES. Two other rewriteable formats, known confusingly as DVD+RW and DVD-RW, are being pushed by coalitions of computer and consumer-electronics companies. Each claims to offer the greatest degree of compatibility with existing drives. But since there aren't any drives available to test, the claims merely add to consumer confusion. Hewlett-Packard (HWP ) announced a sub-$1,000 DVD+RW drive in January but has not brought it to market, and it is not clear when these drives will appear. Meanwhile, an industry group called the Optical Storage Technology Assn. promises a standard called MultiRead that will allow future drives to read a wide variety of CD and DVD formats. Even if it works, however, it won't help the millions of consumers who already own incompatible DVD readers.

As the Pioneer CD-R drive and the elegantly simple Apple software show, this could become an important consumer product. But we're talking about an industry that can't agree on whether DVD stands for "digital video drive" or "digital versatile drive." Given the sorry past and present, I'm not optimistic that many consumers will see this technology anytime soon.


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