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DVD Forum provokes HDD spec punch-up

MS Windows Media 9 codec is catalyst for strife

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The infamous DVD Forum has almost certainly provoked all-out warfare within the consumer electronic community with its latest decision - to include Microsoft Windows Media 9 codec in its new high density disk standard.

This move by the self-styled standards body for DVD technology is tantamount to saying that the Japanese originators of the group, among them some of the largest consumer electronic companies in the world, had better step back into line or the entire CE universe will be handed over lock, stock and barrel to US IT firms.

The decision was made at a meeting of the DVD Forum Steering Committee on the 25 and 26 of February, held in Tokyo. A number of resolutions were nodded through and a couple knocked back. Most of the mandatory auditory codecs, the compression coding for sound that will be automatically supported, were knocked back including DD+, DTS++ and MLP as well as AAC as a part of the optional spec. These will be reconsidered and a new list put forward for the group’s next meeting.

However, the steering committee pushed through provisional approval of MPEG2, WM9 (VC-9) and MPEG4 AVC(H.264) video codecs as mandatory for the HD DVD video specification for playback devices. This is subject to an update in 60 days regarding licensing terms and conditions, and a presentation by each of the respective licensing bodies at the next meeting where any of the above codecs might be eliminated.

Telling the big CE firms like Toshiba, Sony, Panasonic and Samsung that they have to make devices with support for Microsoft’s VC-9, resulting in Microsoft getting royalties, is certain to split the forum completely and make it even less effective than it was when it recommended the underlying technology behind its blue laser DVD back in December.

Then Toshiba’s format won the endorsement at the expense of a joint proposal from Sony, Philips and Matsushita. These last three, with their competing Blu Ray format have now gone their separate way and have garnered support from Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

DVDs made using Blue light diode lasers are expected to fit up to five times the storage onto DVDs above the current red laser versions, roughly 20GB. This means that High Definition films plus program extras would fit easily onto a single DVD. Products are not expected for at least two years but a vote for Microsoft will almost certainly mean many of the big Japanese firms pull out, even to the extent of breaking up the forum.

The current format war over rewriteable DVDs continues even now and the +RW format backed by Sony and Philips was not endorsed by the Forum and yet has reasonable, though not dominant market share. At the same meeting a Toshiba representative was voted in as the chairman of the group and three vice chairs were adopted from Time Warner, Intel and Sony. Time Warner will almost certainly be pushing VC-9, while Sony would rather die than use it.

Last year Microsoft submitted its VC-9 codec and the rest of Windows Media 9 to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), but no decision on this has yet been given.

Microsoft has now been set a last hurdle to stumble over. Its royalty terms must be in line with, or better than H.264 for any of the top CE manufacturers to be tempted by it, and that will be made clear in 60 days. It will also have to open up the VC-9 codec to others, something that it has not done until now, as the codec and its origins are shrouded in mystery.

© Copyright 2004 Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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