Within EMedia's most-traveled terrain, there's only one company that throws its weight around in the close, crowded quarters of writable CD and DVD with the arrogance and impact of an empire upon which the sun never sets: Hewlett-Packard. And even in these troubled times, its girth and grandiosity are hardly in decline—even if some seams are beginning to show. As I write, HP is busily inking a deal to acquire its most comparable competitor in the integrated desktop system space, fellow PC popularizer Compaq Corporation. Sure, a determined but slim majority of stockholders essentially had to push out Walter Hewlett to make the deal happen, but it seems to be happening nonetheless.
HP has faced its share of other controversies over the years. A couple years back, the company got sucked into a nasty class action suit over some Philips 2X CD recorders (the CDD 2000 and 2600) that couldn't seem to write more than 550MB of data onto 650MB discs. Most of the blame in that case fell on Philips, since they made the drives. But HP sold significantly more units (as the HP 4020i and 6020i) than Philips did, and it's hard to imagine HP's "due diligence" testers never noticed the drives' deficiencies before they shipped in mass quantities.
The latest controversy swirling around HP in the writable optical world involves another technology that they've been closely associated with—DVD+RW—but again have had no specific engineering role in developing or manufacturing. The issue at hand is the ability of HP's first-generation rewritable DVD+RW drives, manufactured by Ricoh and released in November 2001, to be upgraded to record on write-once DVD+R media. No great mystery here: they can't. Did their early adopters know that? Well, it depends who you ask, and more to the point, it depends who they asked. EMedia went on record on the Web in October 2001, and in print in January, saying the drives could not write DVD+R, and could not be upgraded to do so. When did HP reveal this useful tidbit of optical drive trivia? At CeBit, in March, when it came time to sell their second-generation DVD+RW drives based on their key advantage over their predecessors: DVD+R write-compatibility.
What's particularly galling about this development is that it's so in character for the whole DVD+RW camp, which started pitching its tents way back in 1998. Do a casual Web search on "DVD+RW" and you'll find press releases, announcements of trade show demos, and release-date declarations reaching well back into the second Clinton administration, and almost invariably appearing in almost perfect synch with similar missives from the DVD-RAM and DVD-R camps. The main difference? At least some of the DVD-RAM and DVD-R announcements reflected actual product and existing capabilities. If DVD-R delivered compatibility with "most" DVD players and ROM drives, DVD+RW promised "nearly all." And as the shaky optics of early DVD players made DVD-R's readability record look spotty, the "wait and hope" message of the DVD+RW camp sounded ever rosier. Similarly, as real DVD-RAM drives debuted with 2.6GB capacity, the +RW camp retorted with promises of 3.0GB, and projected pricing just a hair lower than whatever the DVD-RAM crowd (Matsushita, Toshiba, and Hitachi) offered on their shipping drives at the time. A privileged few even saw champagne-room demos of the technology in action, and some of us even relayed news of them to the public as signifying, well, something.
The three-gig capacity still didn't sound much like DVD (given pressed DVD-5's 4.7GB capacity), but it was just convincing enough to keep its opponents' chips down, somewhere between a bluff never called and a pistol-packing crap-shooter's no-spot dice. And with the specter of HP's mass market reach ever looming over the entire writable DVD scene—real and imagined—the prospect of a future HP-backed format (along with the admitted shortcomings of the existing options, like the high price and non-rewritability of pre-A03 Pioneer hardware, and extremely limited read-compatibility of DVD-RAM) didn't exactly freeze the market, but kept it mighty cool. All in all, an impressive achievement for a phantom format.
The 2X CD-R debacle notwithstanding, HP has generally launched good products into the writable CD and DVD markets, and they've been mostly well-reviewed here. Their first-generation DVD+RW got a pretty good review from Hugh Bennett back in March, albeit with the caveat (which he knew he'd be applying before he ever saw the drive) that it would never write DVD+R. Bennett concluded that that was reason enough to wait for the next-generation model, which would provide the whole +R/RW package. No one could reasonably expect HP to lead its customers to the same conclusion. But that's no reason to obscure—or worse, contradict—the relevant facts that might lead them to it. Sony and Ricoh never made that mistake, but it's apparent that HP did. Maybe they just got so used to the rampant, unconfirmed claim-staking that was DVD+RW's pre-release trademark that they didn't know when to stop.
The worst part, I suppose, is that HP adhered to that old carny code and continued to treat their customers like con men's marks even after the product was on the shelves and the money had changed hands. And even though I doubt first-generation HP DVD+RW drives reached all that many end-users between November and March (which probably means HP has little or nothing to lose in implementing a conscientious trade-in program), there ought to be hell to pay with retailers and distributors stuck with discredited product. Not exactly twilight of empire, but it's a start.