DVD bright on feds' horizon

With its unparalleled storage capacity and its quick rise to popularity, digital video disc, also known as digital virtual disc, technology,has been seeping into federal agencies as a replacement for CD-ROM.

The benefits are obvious: A single DVD physically resembles a CD but can hold from 4.7 to 17 gigabits of data - amounting to as much as 27 times more storage space than the 650-megabit limits of CDs.

High-quality DVD-Video has made inroads into the consumer market, with about 500,000 DVD-Video players sold in the United States. In addition, the potential for DVD to move data seamlessly to TVs as well as PCs may revolutionize multimedia applications.

But observers do not expect the fledgling technology to supersede CDs anytime soon. Lack of standards and compatibility problems will make purchases of DVD a dicey proposition for at least another year, especially for users interested in writable discs. DVD manufacturers must standardize components if they want to overtake other formats, such as CDs and VHS videotapes.

DVD Divided

There are three basic DVD computer technology areas: DVD-ROM, or read-only; DVD-R, or write-once; and competing formats for rewritable DVD.

DVD-ROM, which allows backward compatibility with CD drives, is a clear standard and is growing fast. Rick Doherty, market research director at The Envisioneering Group, Seaford, N.Y., said 7 million DVD-ROM drives will have been shipped by the end of this year. But he is quick to add that the figure represents only one-eighth of the 64 million to 70 million CD-ROM drives shipping this year.

Of all the DVD technologies, DVD-ROM and DVD-Video have solidified the most in the market. DVD-Video is based on the MPEG-2 video compression/decompression standard. To watch DVD-Video content on a PC with a DVD-ROM drive, users must have MPEG-2 decoding hardware or software, an enhanced IDE connector on the motherboard and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95 or later.

Users must assemble all these components unless they buy a bundled system. One such system, introduced by Creative Labs Inc., Milpitas, Calif., offers its PC-DVD Encore product bundled with a DVD-ROM drive, decoder card and hardware drivers. The company recommends running the product on systems with at least a 100 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium processor, 32M of RAM, an SVGA graphics adapter with 2M of RAM and a PCI Version 2.1 expansion slot for the decoder board.

Creative Labs, which overwhelmingly controls most of the DVD-ROM drive market, offers IDE hardware drivers for only Windows 95, Windows 98 or Windows NT. Many Unix or Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh system drivers are SCSI-based and cannot work with the Encore system. But Chris Kukshtel, Creative Labs' product marketing manager, said many Mac systems have recently moved to IDE conformance, so they should be able to use Encore. Industry groups such as the Optical Storage Technology Association and the DVD Forum are working on expanding operating system support for DVD via the International Standards Organization's Universal Data Format specifications. UDF Version 1.02 supports DVD read-only, and UDF Version 1.5 supports DVD recording. But these versions still lack extensive operating system support.

Mike Martin, a member of the technical staff at Science Data Management and Archiving at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said he expects the UDF 2.0 specification, which is slated for publication this spring, to support Windows NT 5.0 and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris 2.7.

For federal market segments that need only to read discs but not to write to them, DVD-ROM is the answer. For example, the Patent and Trademark Office is moving forward with a DVD solution for storing 2.1 million registered trademarks and 6 million patents with associated drawings.

Bruce Cox, manager of PTO's Optical Disc Publishing Program, said the agency has been publishing 11 trademark and patent products on CD-ROM for 10 years.

He said the agency plans to put all those on DVD and already has purchased the hardware and software needed for DVD authoring. Cox estimated that trademarks that now take up nine CDs could go on one single-sided DVD.

The Naval School of Health Sciences switched to DVD-ROM to improve the video quality of a multimedia training course titled "Management of Chemical Warfare Injuries." The agency took the existing product on CD-ROM and republished it on DVD-ROM, thereby delivering full-screen, 30-frames-per-second, broadcast-quality video, said Ralph LaBarge, managing partner of Navy subcontractor Alpha DVD LLC, Crofton, Md.

The Write Formats

DVD-R, the write-once DVD technology, suffers somewhat from incompatibility problems with DVD-ROM drives. In many cases, DVD-ROM users cannot read discs created in the DVD-R format. But Robert Napiltonia, director of commercial sales at Creative Labs, said DVD-R received a boost this month when third-generation DVD-ROM drives began supporting the recordable format.

Still, DVD-R has been costly, and performance has been inconsistent. Martin said NASA JPL's Data Distribution Laboratory ran into a few glitches after it purchased a Pioneer New Media Technologies Inc. DVR-S101 driver bundled with Prassi Inc. software in March for $17,000.

"The combination of the Prassi DVD pre-mastering software and the Pioneer recording hardware is erratic," Martin said. "We have written 15 discs successfully, but we've had trouble pre-mastering volumes with long file names.

"This is not just plug-and-play technology," Martin added. "You have to do some setup. We had to get a special high-speed SCSI drive and hard disk controller to sustain the throughput." The lab is now deploying 15 SCSI DVD readers (Pioneer DVD-302) across Sun, Mac and PC platforms, he said.

DVD-R will get another boost in upcoming months when the $17,000 price plummets. "The next-generation writer will come down significantly to $3,000 to $5,000," said Andy Parsons, vice president product development at Pioneer, Long Beach, Calif.

The price drop is just what federal users want.

Jerry McFaul, a computer scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, noted that even at $17,000, DVD-R is less expensive than what compact disc-recordable (CD-R) equipment cost when it first hit the market. "When CD-R came out in 1988, the recorders cost $150,000, so DVD is ahead of the game," McFaul said. He added that blank CDs cost $150 each in 1988, compared with the $43 apiece that federal agencies have paid for blank DVDs.

But rewritable DVD may have stalled the market the most. Three competing rewritable formats have dominated the market: DVD-RAM, DVD+RW and DVD-RW. Each format has been backed by competing industry giants, causing confusion among consumers.

Another problem is that rewritable formats are not compatible with most existing DVD-ROM drives. Although Creative Labs is shipping a third-generation DVD-ROM drive supporting DVD-RAM, most DVD-ROM drives do not allow users to read rewritable DVDs. Analysts say users who want to read rewritable DVDs should exercise caution when making purchases.

"The problem is that many users who have DVD-ROM drives are not aware that their drives won't play DVD-RAM or DVD-R discs," said Rob Enderle, vice president of desktop and mobile technology at Giga Information Group, Cambridge, Mass. "If you deploy DVD-ROM drives today, they'll be obsolete when the new DVD-ROM drives come out," he said. "It's better to wait the extra six to nine months and get the drive that will last."

But LaBarge said the incompatibility problems with rewritable DVDs will have little effect on most users because most users do not need to read DVD-RAM. "It's not terribly important that a DVD-ROM drive can't read a DVD-RAM disc," he said. "There are really no obstacles to acceptance of DVD-ROM at this point. It's only a matter of time before all new PCs will have a DVD-ROM drive."

DVD vs. CD

Observers of the CD market cannot help but notice that the DVD market has taken off more quickly than its rival technology did 14 years ago. "If you compare CD-ROM market development with the adoption of DVD technology, it's an order of magnitude larger and faster," said David Obelcz, product manager for consumer software at Gateway Inc.

Obelcz noted that in 1984, when CD-ROMs first became commercially available, about 100,000 discs were sold in a year. "It had low acceptance and a slow ramp," he said. But from March 1997, when DVD was released, until December 1998, DVD sales are projected to reach 7 million worldwide, he said.

He also noted that it took nine years for industry to begin offering CD-ROM as a standard line item. By contrast, it has taken only 20 months - from March 1997 until October 1998 - for Gateway to offer DVD-ROM as a standard line item.

Obelcz said Gateway began to offer DVD-ROM as an option under the General Services Administration schedule in January for an extra $80 to $200, depending upon the configuration. Starting in October, the PC vendor began offering third-generation DVD-ROMs - which support write-once and rewritable formats - on its Destination Series PCs as standard on the GSA schedule.

If the past is an accurate indicator, users can expect to find DVD drives built into just about every PC on the market within a few years. McFaul, who plans to migrate USGS' swollen files of spatial data to DVD within a year, said the future looks bright. "DVD recorders will come down in price, so there will be more of a reason to move to DVD this time next year," he said.

-- Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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