VHS won the battle over Betamax years ago, but consumers are still courting new DVD technology cautiously and aren't yet ready to decide whether DVD - Digital Video Disc - will be the next generation made-for-home-viewing movie medium.
Blame it on DVD's identity-inhibiting design-by-committee origins. Blame it on the fact that DVDs are the exact same size as CDs but won't play in any of the 200 million CD players in the U.S. market - though CDs will play in DVD players.Blame it on the confusing entrance of somewhat-similar Divx technology.
Blame it on current limitations on recording or re-recording - a factor that has helped limit laser disc movie players to 2 percent of American house-holds. Blame it on DVD's copyright-protecting ability to make it difficult to bootleg DVDs onto video tape.
"I think we will see a coexistence of media over the next several years," speculates Greg Sneyd, president of One-Off CD Shops in Salt Lake City. "DVD ultimately will take over, though, but that may take several years."
Sneyd's company mass produces CDs for commercial clients and has started building a customer base for DVD reproduction. But the clientele is growing slowly as DVD marks its first anniversary on the market.
The Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Association has watched DVD's acceptance closely during its debut year. The nation's largest consumer electronics organization estimates 437,000 DVD players were sold in the United States during the first year, marking more rapid acceptance than the debuts of either the compact disc player in 1983 or videocassette recorders in 1975.
Still, the number is far short of analysts' projections that one million DVD players would sell the first year.
The goal of DVD developers was to put a two-hour movie on a CD-size disc. They accomplished that goal and more. DVDs have enough "space" to carry multiple language tracks and even multiple versions of a Hollywood feature - say a PG and R version - on a single disc.
A CD has a 650-megabyte capacity. DVDs, depending on their format, can hold from 4.7 to 17 gigabytes. Comparing physical characteristics between DVD and VHS tape, DVDs are much smaller and more durable, having no moving parts, and allow more skip-searching and playing options than a streaming ribbon of video tape. Tape, however, is still the flexibility champion as a recording medium.
And just as the audio CD now has a computer companion in CD-ROM, DVD has multimedia computer companion DVD-ROM. DVD at first was the short name for Digital Video Disc. It's adoption as a computer medium has developers saying DVD is the short name for Digital Versatile Disc.
A consortium of 10 manufacturers is developing DVD together to avoid another VHS vs. Beta marketing struggle. They have accomplished the data capacity objective by squeezing laser-read data tracks closer together, putting data on both sides of the disc instead of CD-style on just one side, and are even layering the laser-read data so two tracks can be put on each side.
Like many new technologies, DVD movie players are pricey - $400 to $1,600 - and DVD-ROM drives can only be found on higher-end personal computers. Prices will drop as sales volumes increase. Movie titles and software products also have to be more widely available to jump start buyers' interest.
20th Century Fox and Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks are the only major stu-dios not making releases in DVD format. Paramount is expected to make a splash in August with planned DVD and VHS releases of "Titanic."
About 1,000 movie titles have been released on DVD - many of which are not new releases. The offering hasn't captured the attention of mainstream movie rental chains.
"Right now it's a little bit slow because the Blockbusters of the world haven't embraced the technology yet," Sneyd said.
Further fragmenting adoption of DVD technology is Divx - the DVD-format no deposit, no return rental movie.
Divx (Digital Video Express) is a pay-per-view movie distribution system promoted by computer retailer Circuit City that eliminates the movie rental middle man. Divx is currently being tested in the San Francisco and Richmond, Va., markets.
Viewers buy a Divx movie disc for a projected price of $4.49 and pop it in a proprietary player (that is also supposed to be able to play DVD discs) where the Divx title will play during any 48-hour period. After that, the viewer can throw the disc away without having to return it somewhere.
Additional views after the initial 48 hours require a credit card transaction, handled by the Divx player's modem, to buy additional views. When payments for a single title hit a $10-$15 ceiling, the viewer owns unlimited viewing rights to the disc.
Divx viewing rights are monitored by the player: take the disc to a friend's house to view it and you have to take the player along. The player periodically calls its account manager with billing updates, which means the disc is worth-less without an active Divx account. That also means a database somewhere is logging every movie watched by the account holder.
Paramount, Disney, MCM-UA, 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks are all supporting Divx even though 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks are not on the DVD bandwagon.
Divx may appeal to people who like the idea of paying $5 for a movie they're not sure they'll watch over and over compared to $15 for popular VHS titles or $25-$35 for available DVD titles. The hefty up-front investment is in the $499 Divx player.
If the Divx option sounds appealing, buyers could consider the hardware investment as a $400 DVD player with a $100 Divx enhancement.
Detractors say Divx is stealing away attention DVD needs for its roots to sink. The more pragmatic observers will be watching the coming Christmas buying season closely to compare video, DVD and Divx sales.