The Matrix
Posted Jan 1, 2002

To date, DVD authoring has reared and dipped like a virtual carousel ride, and picked up all sorts of new riders, from experts to ingenues. But in the emerging matrix of authoring tools, can every new rider find a mount to match?

January 2002|Talk about a shakeout! Over the last couple of years, the DVD authoring world has been on a virtual carnival ride. Prices have fallen like a giant roller coaster's first descent and the powerful, sophisticated DVD engines that were built to turn the wheels of esoteric professional interfaces now drive the relative Teacup and Saucer kiddie rides of consumer-level applications. Is it big power gone to waste? Or has DVD authoring finally developed enough to bring video communications to non-video professionals? Or, even bolder, can DVD authoring become the killer consumer application that digital video has been seeking for more than a decade?

DVD authoring clearly isn't just for professional service bureaus and Hollywood studios anymore. It's now a process so easy that the proverbial grandmother could author a DVD, if she had a camcorder and a DVD burner. But there's the rub: few grandmothers do have burners, at least not yet, and that's left many big names in DVD authoring standing at the gate of this new consumer-oriented thrill ride. However, it's still standing room only on this attraction and just as many companies have been turned away, eager new ones—both new to authoring and outright new—have stepped forward to nab a seat.

What's in store for this industry on the move? Older applications are still as powerful as ever, but the ones that might seem like toys to traditionalists actually offer some surprising capabilities. But it remains to be seen whether professionals can use them for any serious projects and if they will bring new business and consumer users to the fold. Or, it is possible that the format wars of competing writable DVD hardware will burst the software companies' bubble when it's almost ready to float skyward.

Sonic Boom?
2001 was, indeed, an odyssey for DVD authoring. Of the more than half dozen prominent companies that started the year in authoring, only Sonic Solutions and (with a small percent of the market at very high end) Panasonic remain to start 2002. All others were victims of either the success or failure of DVD authoring to date, depending on the perspective. At the same time, several new companies have taken their place, banking on the boom time to come.

The tenuous success of DVD authoring in reaching the masses is that end-users can now find very affordable DVD authoring tools. This trend was initially sparked by Sonic Solutions' bold 1999 introduction of DVDit! for $500 when the nearest competitor was $5,000 and most others were in the five-digit range. DVDit! set the stage for a dramatic transition from the powerful (though often cumbersome) tools designed for a small group of professionals to more affordable, easier to use tools for novices. Unfortunately, the pace of that change left several companies behind. With sagging returns, Daikin was absorbed in 2001 by Sonic, Spruce by Apple, Minerva's DVD authoring tools by Pinnacle Systems, and Multimedia Technology Center by SmartDisk, all joining Astarte, which was acquired by Apple almost two years ago. Intec America also closed its doors.

In hindsight, the pace of change was probably too fast for Sonic, as the anticipated affordable DVD burners did not appear immediately to entice new users to begin creating discs. Hardware delays left Sonic scrambling toward the less glam- orous alternative of burning DVD disc images to CD-R for computer playback. That was a marketing compromise and Sonic didn't make any killing from what they term cDVD. But, the company spent the time in limbo wisely, establishing OEM partnerships and generating an installed base of more than one million users and market recognition to go along with it.

Minimally, Sonic now appears well positioned to benefit from rising consumer interest and the hardware piece that is finally fitting into place. Pioneer's DVR-A03 is now available for under $500, with speculation of sub-$300 pricing within just a couple of months. The format wars among DVD-R, DVD-RAM, and DVD+RW wage on, but to the distinct consumer benefit of lowering prices. Sub-$500 DVD-RAM/DVD-R drives have already pushed Pioneer to lower prices and more price cuts are on the way for both as volumes increase. Add to that the emerging DVD+RW drives that also burn discs that play in most consumer DVD players and the days of desktop DVD burning may finally have arrived.

The Clear Trend
While Sonic started the low-cost authoring trend, Apple's January 2001 introduction of the first truly consumer-oriented DVD authoring software, iDVD, firmly established DVD authoring as a mainstream application and set the tone for the industry. Combined with Apple's free and simple-to-use DV video capture and editing application, iMovie, iDVD and the bundled Pioneer burner offered the first start to finish DVD creation environment for consumers. While Apple now continues to support this dual application (iMovie/ iDVD) on the grounds of greater user control and flexibility, what has emerged in its wake is a new class of products that goes even beyond this integration and simplicity. DVD's latest trend attempts to streamline the entire process of moving video from camcorder, to computer, to DVD disc without requiring the user to understand— much less learn—editing or authoring.

In reality, many consumers struggle to assemble simple photo albums from piles of photo lab-processed prints. Thus, expecting the mass market to have both the time and the talent to edit and author videos may explain digital video's lack of true mass-market success to date. The new tools try to take the time (and even talent) element out of the picture by making putting video on disc as easy or easier than dubbing a tape, except with a spiffier finished product. It also seems likely that the popularity of audio CD mixing and burning has, in some ways, readied the market for the video equivalent.

Currently, at least five companies—Pinnacle Systems, Ulead Systems, Sonic Solutions, DVDCre8, and MedioStream—have authoring products that, within a single application, capture video from a DV camcorder, author a DVD disc image, and control a burner to create a DVD disc. Respectively, Express, DVD MovieFactory, MyDVD, DVD Complete, and neoDVD all provide a simple template-based authoring interface, a preview mode, and DVD burner control for straight-to-disc recording within the application. MyDVD 3.0 takes simplicity to the extreme by offering users the option of, after answering a couple of set-up wizard questions, hitting just a single button that automates the entire process from camcorder to disc, complete with menu creation (through scene recognition during capture) and DVD navigation. (For a review of Sonic's MyDVD 4, see .) 

Most products also offer more authoring control and room for consumers to grow by allowing users to modify templates or create new ones. Many among this new generation of authoring tools also include simple clip-trimming capabilities for editing outtakes. Ulead even integrates a DVD authoring module directly into both the VideoStudio and MediaStudio non-linear editing products for more ambitious users. However, the clear consumer trend is toward removing obstacles in the path of consumers who venture into DVD burning. (For a review of Ulead's VideoStudio, see .)

Business Authoring
So, it looks like consumer DVD authors have a clear path to their future endeavors, but what about the business community? Will tools that were really designed to capture junior's first step or a Grand Canyon vacation really work for professionals? The answer is both yes and no.

A carefully crafted video can be a powerful business communications tool. If the goal is simply putting video on a disc, with a simple menu structure and limited navigation, consumer authoring tools may fit the bill. For straightforward titles, consumer-oriented products may be a more expeditious solution than professional authoring workstations, especially since consumers don't magically transform into video experts when they step into an office at 9 a.m.

Yet, in business, video is less often used in entertainment-like isolation. It typically takes on a different role: supporting other business communications for sales, presentation, marketing, and training. To provide true business authoring support for a market comprised of lawyers, salespeople, marketers, presenters, etc., tools must remain easy to use, but should focus on automating business-oriented features.

There are stirrings of this type of business authoring support from some companies in the authoring marketplace. One, DVDCre8, offers DVD Complete, which uses a wizard interface with four different templates. The "Business" template automates the processes of creating an overture, or DVD "First Play," that might include a company logo, splash screen, or motion graphic, or a combination of multiple assets. MedioStream's neoDVD Plus offers the ability to record a narrative track while previewing video. It's a consumer-oriented feature, but one that presenters might use to explain visuals without an elaborate production process. Apple has removed a major roadblock for business use of iDVD by including a setting in iDVD 2.0 to turn off the Apple logo silhouette that previously appeared on all finished disc image menus. (For a discussion of iDVD, see .)

However, it's not hard to see the advantages of simple interfaces that truly target businesses by including interfaces that make it easy for users to import entire PowerPoint presentations at once and turn them into DVD slide shows. Importing PowerPoint slides is possible now with most products that support slide shows, but it remains a tedious process. A business interface might also, behind the scenes, turn some of the presentation slides into menus that could trigger video clips for marketing testimonials, sales information, product demonstrations, or training. While more complex, it might even be possible to create templates that supply basic DVD If-Then logic for simple training applications. (For a review of Pinnacle's business-class Impression, see .)

Business authoring tools clearly ought to also focus on support for Enhanced DVDs that link to corporate Web sites and HybridDVDs that might contain spreadsheets, documents, and other forms of business data and even automatically convert that data in JPG stills for DVD player display. While consumers might use those features as well, business people would probably be willing to go to the next price level for them. (For a review of Ulead's business-class DVD Workshop, see .)

While the sub-$1,000, "Corporate" authoring category doesn't have the cachet of even a year ago, both Pinnacle Systems and Apple introduced products into the category this past year. Both products were, admittedly, acquired in deals where the larger value was likely to have been a development team that could create a consumer-level application: Express and iDVD, respectively. Nonetheless, both companies improved the products before releasing them into the market and both products now offer unique solutions. It's likely that the proven, full-featured professional authoring systems will have a continuing appeal to service bureaus and studios unwilling to compromise on capabilities, but as so-called corporate tools continue to offer larger feature sets, they will put more pressure on the highest level workstations. That's a particularly likely scenario from Apple and Pinnacle, since neither has a higher-end product to protect.

What's Next
It may seem a little ironic that the result of an industry shakeout could ultimately result in a market comprised of more companies than before it started, but that's essentially what happened in 2001. On the other hand, it may be equally appropriate to say that the beginning of the shakeout really affected a different business than exists today. DVD authoring used to be a very specific craft that required professional talent and attention. At the highest level, it still is. But today's DVD authoring market, thanks to affordable digital camcorders and accessible DVD burners, has a new focus.

For years, digital video companies have eyed the millions of consumer camcorders in the marketplace (more than 6 million U.S. sales in 2001, and more than one third of them digital) and the closets full of videotapes that they generate. Digital video editing and video capture card companies have approached that market with varying degrees of success. Now, DVD authoring, of all disciplines, may have the best chance of success yet via the unlikely strategy of its core functionality. By focusing on creating solutions rather than further simplifying authoring processes, DVD authoring companies could experience an even more exciting, and more positive, 2002.

What's Up and What's in Store for DVD Authoring Software

With such a wide range of products, from true consumer software applications to six-digit MSRP professional production tools, this chart can be both unwieldy and inadequate. Yet, in an industry that has changed so dramatically over the last several months, it gives a good snapshot of the state of the market.

It also offers a glance at several trends at work in the industry. In terms of straight numbers of products, there is an unmistakable move toward easier interfaces and, in particular, a consumer market that simply didn't exist two years ago. The professional tools category has gone from having almost all the action to just a few proven tools, while last year's hot "Corporate" category continues to stew with the re-emergence of two older tools under new stewardship: Pinnacle Systems (née Minerva) Impression and Apple (née Astarte) DVD Studio Pro. A new category that we're calling "Business Authoring," for lack of a more suitable label, is rather undefined on the surface by prices slightly higher than consumer products and feature sets that are somewhat lacking compared to "Corporate" tools. Hopefully, it will begin to address an under-served business market of presenters, salespeople, and corporate communicators with the addition of a few targeted tool sets.

Specs alone, unfortunately, can't tell the whole story over this range of tools, but they do highlight some key differences and surprising similarities between the highest-level tools and those striving for consumer ease-of-use. For example, studios and service bureaus authoring Hollywood titles demand features like Inverse Telecine for encoding 24 frame/sec film source material, region and parental control, copy protection, and closed captioning. Most corporate or consumer authors wouldn't have much need for those. On the other hand, one consumer tool, DVDCre8's DVD Complete, includes both region coding and parental control, hinting at the feature differentiation likely to gain importance in a crowded field.

Widescreen and Dolby Digital support, as well as programming logic and advanced navigation from (General Parameter Register Memories), have fairly high-end appeal. However, it's easy to see these types of features appearing in an enthusiast-level product, especially Widescreen given most DV camcorders' ability to shoot in 16:9. They are already found in two corporate level tools: SmartDisk's DVDMotion Pro and Apple's DVD Studio Pro. Finally, when you think of an authoring workstation with real-time MPEG-2 encoding, you'd probably look straight to the High-end category. However, general processors are now fast enough to leverage a simple analog-to-RGB capture card, and today that functionality is often built into graphics cards. These faster processors can also accommodate encoding straight to MPEG-2 in software. Quality may not quite match the dedicated cards of the top systems, but it's close and the result is authoring/ encoding workstation-style capabilities at a consumer price.

[Visually, of course, the best way to represent the emergent matrix of DVD authoring solutions and their categorical breakdown would be a fully 3D matrix-like presentation, that would clarify not just the product-to-product comparisons, but what distinguishes the categories as well, allowing a full examination of these working definitions. Given the physical limitations of recalcitrantly two-dimensional print, and the economic impracticality (not to mention retro-unfitness) of tipping-in 3D glasses, we've un-interlocked the matrix into discrete tables based on the chosen categories. Readers are nonetheless encouraged, as critical consumers—not to mention cultural anthropologists of DVD authoring's strange evolution—to cross-reference liberally among the tables (noting, say, the input file type-ranges of Corporate versus High-End Pro tools) and thus gain a better sense of not just how the products compare, but the categories as well.—Ed.]


Apple Computer, Inc.
DVDCre8, Inc.
MedioStream, Inc.
Panasonic Industrial company
Pinnacle Systems Inc.
SmartDisk Corporation
Sonic Solutions
Ulead Systems, Inc.