The first major story for digital content is Microsoft's latest version of the Windows Media Player—version 7. (And don't call it WiMP.) New to the player are skins, giving it a contemporary feel while also allowing third-party developers to enhance its appearance and add functionality. More importantly, Microsoft touted its "Media Format" for music and video.
Demos suggest that Microsoft's compression schema works better than MP3, reducing by half the size of music files. The same holds true for video. While Media Player will handle MPEG-4 files, Microsoft recommends its own format over this standard as offering greater quality—near-VHS at 350Kbps and near-DVD at 750Kbps. I saw both demos and I think they have something here. To prove their point, they ran the same video off a DVD-Video player side-by-side with WMP and the difference was small, even at full-screen and on 32-inch monitors.
In boasting of their own player, Microsoft dismissed the MPEG-4 crowd (who seem to be increasingly calling the technology "DivX," oddly enough), saying that that player is really only ancient Media Player code with a new skin. Time will tell, however, if the MPEG-4 faithful will win the way MP3 promoters have. (And why isn't it MP4? Sounds to me like a natural for this upcoming streaming video technology, and conjures in MP3 much better associations than little-lamented namesake DivX.)
On the storage side, DVD-RAM held its own against product announcements from Pioneer (set-top and PC versions of DVD-RW) as well as the DVD+RW posse. The RAM format has clearly won over several new vendors—DISC showed off new jukebox hardware, NSM announced 4.7GB DVD-RAM support for their boxes, and PC maker Compaq announced they would begin to ship workstations incorporating DVD-RAM. This last integration move could have significant impact on the installed base, making DVD-RAM's hold on the market even stronger.
However, both Pioneer with their announced (but not shipping) DVD-RW drive and the DVD+RW gang hammered DVD-RAM on the media's lack of compatibility with DVD players and PC DVD-ROM drives. Without that, say HP and Ricoh and other in the +RW camp, DVD-RAM is simply a dead-end. Compatibility is the key for sustained growth for them, and compatibility with DVD players is what they continue to promise +RW will deliver.
Unfortunately, this isn't a new story for optical technology observers, as has been noted in these pages on a number of occasions. The DVD+RW spec looks great on paper. The demos looked great three years ago at COMDEX. But they are wearing a little thin now. And when it came to announcing expected shipping dates, for veterans of last year's COMDEX, they're "wait ‘til next year" stance was like déjà vu all over again: drives will not ship for almost another year, likely 3rd Quarter 2001. And again, no pricing is set, although all vendors said it would be "competitive" with other technologies. So lots more promises while we await delivery. (The same is true for Maxoptix' OSD MO drive. The Optical Super Density technology should provide fast throughput at more than 6MB/sec with high capacity at upwards of 13GB + from a single optical disc. Sadly, it too won't appear until Q3 2001.)
Hewlett-Packard does have the right idea for their new DVD+RW drive. They call their future unit the "SuperDrive" since it will support both CD-RW and DVD+RW, meaning that the drive will support all the major flavors of 120mm optical (except, of course, DVD-RAM). Users do want a single drive that handles all their disc-based media. And HP has been particularly successful in the CD-RW space, so consumer loyalty may well bring buyers to the SuperDrive.
But the DVD-RAM vendors already have product out in the market and now have almost a year to convince consumers that their solution works just fine (same opportunity as last year, mind you). They are already looking at DVD-RAM/CD-RW drives and already ship a DVD-RAM video recorder. And playback support is improving on the PC side with most recent DVD-ROM models from members of the RAM triumvirate (Hitachi, Matsushita, and Toshiba) offering DVD-RAM support.
In related news, Pioneer also showed off their third-generation DVD-R drive, the DVR-103, which they announced last month, and the first half-height internal model to date. The non-Authoring version is designed as a prosumer PC desktop product and offers read and write support for DVD-R/RW and CD-R/RW, as well as read support for all CD and DVD formats (except DVD-RAM). This may make the first DVD-R model to edge toward viability for jukebox and library integration. As we've said before, network administrators typically prefer a write-once only medium like DVD-R versus a rewritable format such as DVD-RAM for high-density jukebox storage. So the introduction of a lower-cost (under $2000) DVD-R drive seems a great move for Pioneer.
Once again, though, the DVD-RAM side is finalizing a write-once spec for their media, essentially making it WORM. So the DVD-RAM side may trump the DVD-R group with a write-protected disc from a drive that's one-fourth the cost.
On the read-only front, our old friends at Afreey were out showing a 56X ATAPI CD-ROM drive, a 50X SCSI CD-ROM unit, and a 12X DVD-ROM reader. Another vendor, Korea's LG, edged past them in the speed race for DVD with a 16X DVD-ROM drive.
COMDEX 2000 also brought some news on connectors. 3Ware Inc. demo'd their new Escalade RAID controller using ATA/100 drives. They claim sustained throughput of over 164MB/sec versus 70MB/sec for Ultra160 SCSI—in essence then making their ATA bus the fastest connector on the planet.
Microtech had their new CD Network Publisher (nicknamed the "Burnie") out on the show floor. The device seems aimed at being the CD-R equivalent of the laser printer, and includes both a recorder and a label printer. They boast their unit performs faster than competing units because the label printer is mounted separately from the burning, thus removing this heavy vibration source.
Finally, a couple of highlights of the show of a lower-tech nature were close encounters with "Famous People." Mac jukebox vendor PowerFile hosted sci-fi author Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame). Adams said he adored the 200-disc system, having never imagined there was such a device. Apparently he had been sneaker-netting his audio and data CDs around all these years…
And lastly, the illustrious Bill Gates dropped in to visit the Quantum Snap Server (perhaps to gasp at its newly announced Java Virtual Machine support). Gates particularly noted the unit's wide protocol support—including his own Windows NTFS.