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Caught in my DVDs

Pursuing new technology is often a game of wait and see. Pursuits hed: Caught in my DVDs dek: Pursuing new technology is often a game of wait and see. by Nelson King

“Honey, why don’t you get yourself a new toy?” When your spouse says something like this, you know he or she doesn’t mean that little red Ferrari you mentioned once a few years ago. In my case, I knew it also didn’t mean a new fishing rod. My wife was thinking instead (for some strange reason) about something new for the computer. Although she knows I make my livelihood from almost everything I use on a computer, the vernacular is still “toy.” That’s OK with me, because that’s really how it is. After 20-plus years, I still like to play on the computer.

I think my wife was taking pity on me for having a lousy spring. Birds chirped, grass grew, flowers bloomed, and I sat indoors for weeks appreciating none of it with a nasty flu-related illness and lots and lots of work. So I agreed that it was a great time for a new toy, and I new exactly what it would be–a rewritable DVD device for the computer.

There comes a time for everybody when the “next great thing” in computing just isn’t. There are so many next great things. Take your pick: voice recognition software, handheld computers, broadband Internet connections, shopping online, flat-screen monitors–and more. A recording DVD machine might not even make the list, though in some quarters it’s touted as the next great thing in computer storage. So? Why get interested, much less excited, by a storage device?

You could call me a movie addict. I’ve seen maybe 300 movies in the past two years. Of that number, I’ve seen about 50 in a movie theater. Another hundred or so have been viewed on VHS tape. The rest, about half, I’ve seen on DVD. I’m not fanatical about seeing only DVD versions of movies, but if I’ve got a choice (and the money), that’s the way I’ll go. There are two simple reasons for this: quality and durability.

In any kind of tape-versus-DVD comparison, tape does poorly. The video quality (color, sharpness, fidelity) of DVDs is much better, even if you don’t have the most sophisticated screen. Sound quality in Dolby 5.1 or THX, when played through an appropriate amplifier and speakers, is as good as sound on a music CD–in other words, terrific. The control functions of a DVD, like skipping from place to place, are infinitely faster and easier than those of tape. Then I recall the day I popped in my VHS copy of David Fincher’s “Seven” and discovered the colors had the look of a color photograph left in the desert sun for a week. It wasn’t totally wrong for that movie, but certainly not what the director intended. DVD doesn’t wear out, demagnetize, or otherwise degrade–at least not within a claimed 30-year period.

I have a DVD player at home, hooked up to a jerry-rigged entertainment system (including old speakers out of a friend’s basement). However, I do a lot of traveling and stay in places for months at a time where there is no DVD. So I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if I could watch movies of my own choice, like on my laptop computer, while winging over some large body of water. Clearly, one reason to consider a DVD for the computer would be to watch movies.

Perhaps that’s a frivolous reason for considering a DVD–and one that puts you up against a technical decision. There are DVD-ROM devices that essentially just play movies. These devices function more or less exactly like the DVD players for an entertainment system. DVD-ROM has been around for a number of years. However, now there are also DVD recording devices for your computer. These don’t just play movies, but they can also record music, data, or video.

As background to recording DVD, I’m sure you’re familiar with some kind of CD device for the computer. Like the DVD, CD devices come in read-only and writable versions. The standard device for a number of years has been the read-only CD. Commercial software is nearly always delivered on a CD–for that reason alone most of us have a read-only CD drive. Writable CD technology is newer and much less common. At the moment, most computer manufacturers are trying to replace the old floppy disk that holds a paltry 1.44MB of data with the writable CD that can store 640MB.

Since writable-CD devices can also do the work of read-only CDs, without adding much to the cost, it only makes sense to opt for the more versatile device. Almost the same logic applies to the DVD. While a read-only DVD player does a nice job with movies (and usually can read music CDs as well), it makes more sense to add the ability to write to DVDs. This is especially true because a DVD currently can hold up to 4.7GB of data, compared to 640MB on a CD–a great storage medium for those huge hard disks we need to back up.

If you’re a wise veteran of computing, you’ll know enough to think, right about now, “OK, the rationale sounds good, but what’s the fly in the ointment?” Finding the answer to that question requires some research. This takes some time, and it means I don’t get to hop over to a nearby store or go online for an immediate purchase. Shucks. As I research, my interest in the new toy begins to change just a bit, moving a tad closer to the adult side of anticipation: Look before you leap.

Of course, you can’t leap if you don’t have the money to spring for it. That may be a problem with a writable DVD drive, because the current price range is between $400 and $600. That’s down a lot since these devices were introduced a couple of years ago, but it’s not pocket change. The business side of me says, “Justification for spending $500? No problem. You need to back up all your work, every day. It’s important. So you can use the vastly increased storage capacity–and besides, it’s an investment in future technology.” The personal side of me says, “What, are you nuts? You’d pay half the price of a new computer for a storage device? When these babies hit $200, then it’s time to get interested.”

Money isn’t everything. There are other considerations, such as competing standards. Oh yes, there are overtones of the dreaded Beta-versus-VHS conflict. It started way back in 1996, when the electronics industry and the computer industry thrashed around in attempts to avoid the standards problem that had occurred with CDs. It looked as though each electronics manufacturer might develop its own format, but computer makers said they wouldn’t support such a notion. A compromise was reached, called DVD-RAM. These are the rewritable recording DVDs you can buy today from manufacturers such as Toshiba, Hitachi, and Matsushita.

The compromise didn’t hold. Just three months after DVD-RAM was an agreement, another standard called DVD+RW was proposed by a consortium including Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Philips, Yamaha, Ricoh, and Mitsubishi. This was a New York Yankees-like lineup of peripheral manufacturers, so the line between proposed standard and de facto standard might get thin. However, these DVD drives won’t be available until summer or fall.

At the moment we’ve got a handful of DVD-RAM drives, most of them SCSI-based. Many have something I’ve never liked: cartridges to hold the disk. In the early days of CDs, these cartridges added expense, broke down, and weren’t compatible with other equipment. DVD-RAM cartridges won’t play in existing DVD-ROM drives, while the DVD+RW specification does not require cartridges. The latter setup sounds better, but I’ve been told that DVD disks are very sensitive to smudges and hand grease. It’s possible that cartridges are a necessary evil.

I have to use history as a guide to hardware development. There’s a pattern to many peripherals: First comes the hype, then an expensive first version, then problems with standards, then consolidation around a particular standard. In three to five years–once volume goes up, prices fall, and the bugs get worked out–you’ve got a nice consumer product that also happens to be obsolete.

There are other standards being proposed for DVD, including one from Pioneer called DVD-RW. This is not a good sign for consumers, who may be tempted, as I am, to have their cake (watch DVD movies) and eat it too (store vast amounts of data using a reliable and cheap medium). At the moment, it’s an expensive cake and the favorite flavor is unknown. I think we’ll have to wait and see what the next great thing in storage really looks like. I’ll have to wait too, or else find another toy.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Enterprise Pursuits, a look at the business of back-end computing, every Tuesday on

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