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Multi-Family DVD Recorders – A Cop Out

“At the fork in the road — take it.” This classic Yogi Berra malapropism best explains manufacturers’ approach in introducing DVD recorders to write not only DVD+R and DVD+RW discs, but also rival DVD-R and DVD-RW formats.

Multi-Family DVD Recorders – A Cop Out

Hugh Bennett
EmediaLive, Aug 12, 2003

“At the fork in the road — take it.” This classic Yogi Berra malapropism best explains manufacturers’ approach in introducing DVD recorders to write not only DVD+R and DVD+RW discs, but also rival DVD-R and DVD-RW formats. So it’s tough luck for the consumer! Hailed by some as a great accomplishment, these new multi-family devices are, to my mind, an industry cop out likely to hurt marketers, manufacturers, and buyers alike.

Until now, DVD-R/-RW and DVD+R/+RW recording capabilities have existed only in distinct devices offered by opposing camps developing and promoting each approach to further their respective business agendas. However, offering mutually incompatible competing DVD products (which claim to do the same things) has, admittedly, confused consumers. Caught in a deluge of mixed DVD format messages and misinformation, consumers, fearful of getting stuck with an orphan, have been slow to commit to one or the other. Meanwhile, skittish PC companies have shown similar ambivalence.

Some hardware makers, rather than capitulating or fighting for eventual format superiority, have decided that market reluctance can be overcome by incorporating both (+) and (-) recording capabilities into a new single device. Boldly proclaiming to end the format war, Sony’s miracle “Dual RW” claims the prize as first out of the gate. Others will inevitably follow. But as history has shown, declaring victory doesn’t always make it so. Accepting such multi-family units as the solution is simplistic and short-sighted.

With the temptation that one device will do it all, Dual RW (and others to come), may appear alluring on the surface, but it’s a gamble designed to sell hardware without really solving the problem. And it’s easy to say that you’ve “eliminated the need for consumers to choose one format over another by introducing a drive that supports the most popular DVD formats” when purchasers of such a device must still try to decide which of the four types of discs to buy. In the past, consumers often had the experience of taking home the wrong type of blank disc. In this new brave world, they will be faced with more than one dilemma and must play compatibility roulette with different discs that may or may not be the best choice for what they want to do.

Rather than resolving the issue, multi-family DVD recorders will curb the healthy and essential forces that work to rationalize products in the marketplace. Instead, it substitutes a disturbing message. Either manufacturers have been peddling hype for the past four years (and there really are no essential differences between the format families) or they have failed to satisfy consumer requirements with either, so both are needed to make up the deficiencies. Preventing consumers from making this a clear-cut format decision will perpetuate the current disuse of all formats and—by inhibiting the possibility for a dominant format family to emerge—will dilute the market and condemn it to persistent mediocrity and confusion.

So multi-family DVD recorders may seem to remove an immediate problem for some hardware manufacturers, but these units do little for everyone else. For example, what type(s) of blank discs should media manufacturers produce? How many of each? Will efficiencies remain low and prices be inflated thanks to reduced volumes? What about marketers of blank discs and frustrated retailers compelled to stock a little of everything? Will they even bother? How likely is it that PC and consumer electronics producers will work diligently to ensure that every device measures up and is compatible with all writable DVD formats?

Then again, all recorder manufacturers may not jump on the multi-family bandwagon as some are already more strategically, politically, or ideologically wed to one format family or the other. This means that the market will remain awash in not only multi-family devices, but discrete DVD-R/-RW and DVD+R/+RW units—not to mention DVD-multi units incorporating DVD-RAM. Inevitably, escalating recording speeds will further confound the market. Manufacturers have already pledged a rapid ascent to 12X and higher speeds so each of these various recorders will engender a tangle of mismatched writing speeds. And if that isn’t enough, new types of writable DVD discs will eventually be required and—as with high- and ultra-speed CD-RW media—will not be compatible with older recorders. Having as few formats as possible would obviously make this far more palatable.

Looking a little further into the future, prospective consumers should also be concerned that next-generation technologies may not be compatible with all of their writable DVD purchases. For example, how likely is it that 27GB high-definition Blu-ray systems on the horizon will read and record not only their own formats, but CD-R, CD-RW, and every flavor of recordable and rewritable DVD?

It’s ironic to note that Sony, on the eve of the introduction of Dual RW, announced that it had finally discontinued production of its consumer Betamax VCRs. Introduced in the mid-’70s, Sony’s Beta slugged it out with VHS for market supremacy, but lost out almost from the beginning. A good product, but a poor purchase for some. For a variety of reasons, all consumers ultimately benefited because of the eventual emergence of VHS as the clear victor. Can you imagine what shape the video market would have taken had manufacturers equivocated in the early days and tried to combine a VHS and Betamax recorder?

Riding off in all directions at once has always been a bad idea, except in nonsense literature. If Sony and others think that DVD+R and DVD+RW are superior technologies to DVD-R and DVD-RW — as they have been asserting for years — then let them duke it out in the marketplace with, we can only hope, the consumer emerging the winner.

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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