Apple & DVD
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Analysis: DVD-ROM And Apple

1999 by Terry E. Mercer & Pacific Buyers Group
Published by Replication News, May 1999

Most industry observers are in agreement: After two years on the market, DVD-Video has taken off, either meeting or exceeding sales. In contrast, DVD-ROM is barely out of the starting blocks, despite a computer drive universe that is constantly growing and already larger than the DVD-Video player base. Yet there's a dearth of DVD-ROM product.

Even though Apple's iMac has been a "hot" and best-selling PC over the past six months, one wonders to what extent has Apple Computer contributed to this software development dearth?

Underscoring Apple's hampered efforts to jump on the DVD bandwagon, Warner Home Video's DVD-Video/ROM for You've Got Mail, released on May 4, 1999 only works in a Windows environment. This is something of an embarrassment considering that the movie's character played by Meg Ryan uses an Apple PowerBook. A WHV spokeswoman told Replication News that the disc isn't compatible with Macintosh because Apple hadn't released necessary code, although the two companies were working on the problem.

It seems that Apple is stuck in a never-ending cycle of "proprietarism" (an uncanny ability to make nearly every part and piece something that ONLY works on or in very specific makes and models of computer systems---usually keeping the price higher than normal, as the supply and demand is low and upgradability greatly hampered).

Yes, Apple has entered the DVD market to some extent, but early signs suggest that the company is positioned to take a back seat to an industry they helped create.

It is important to understand that the large Hollywood movie studios are currently in control of and pushing the DVD industry right now. These movie companies are actively supporting a desktop standard. Furthermore, both Mac and Wintel (Windows/Intel PC environment) computers are generally able to access these movies without problem.

Most non-movie DVD discs are designed specifically for the computer; therefore subject to software publisher standards, as well as resource and operating system limitations. Large movie companies will push DVD hard and heavy over the next few years, to replace the VHS tapes. But, it will be the computer market that actually brings the DVD into millions of homes and businesses. Not for movies, because most people will still want to watch movies on large-screen TVs. It's anticipated that the nearly 10,000 databases catering to doctors, lawyers, educators, business people, and students, among others, will be transferred to DVD. There is a huge value--both to the publisher (for reduced costs and higher profit) and the consumer (for less disc changing, faster access, fewer interruptions and reduced physical space) that will push DVD over the edge.

Full-motion games are now being released on DVD. But because most existing software is not created using Apple's QuickTime v3 or above, or even the proprietary Macintosh program interface, there is a question in my mind whether an end-user can pick up even 20 percent of the available DVD non-Video discs and have them work in their new Mac DVD drive. This percentage is a "guesstimate" (based on the estimated platform differences between the top 1,000 selling CD-ROM discs and number of smaller publishers that refuse to jump on the Mac bandwagon). If this is accurate and holds true, Macintosh users will be left in the dust once again.

Steve Bannerman, Apple's senior product manager of the QuickTime Group and the company executive most often publicly associated with DVD, was not available to be interviewed for this article.

Over the last month of talking to people still involved with the Apple/Macintosh world, I was only able to find one person, David Masamitsu, who could even tell me about "upgrading" a two-year-old (nearly $15,000) Macintosh PowerPC for DVD. Masamitsu, an ex-Apple "DVD evangelist," recently worked for the now-closed Eleceded Technologies (E4), a spin-off company composed of Apple staffers focused on DVD development.

The crux of the problem is that Apple computers do not allow "real" upgrades, which I'm told they are trying to do with the new BTO (Built-To-Order) line of G3 systems. Unfortunately, this does not help most people with a pre-G3 system.

According to the technicians I spoke with, more than 95 percent of the existing Mac systems cannot be upgraded to effectively use DVD technology. "Sorry, but it wasn't designed for that' and 'you've just thrown away a whole lot of money!" they told me regarding my older Mac systems. Yet a customer service rep for cataloger Mac Warehouse insisted its LaCie DVD-RAM drive could be accommodated by a PowerPC (more on the DVD recordable/rewritable conundrum later).

Masamitsu best stated the Mac problem: "Regardless of whether or not the CPU has been upgraded to PowerPC, shoving MPEG-2 and AC-3 down those pipes using small, slow level 1 and 2 caches and slow RAM is as foolish as trying to bail out the Titanic with a Dixie cup or a soda straw." It seems that upgrading the motherboard, which also deals with the cache, and the RAM are either impossible or not even close to cost effective.

By contrast, in the "Wintel" world, a DVD drive can be added to virtually any Microsoft-based Pentium 166 or better. Furthermore, a decent tech can turn virtually any 286 or better into a Pentium class system in less than an hour for a few hundred dollars--by (worst-case scenario), changing the motherboard, CPU, and RAM memory. So, what is the smartest use of your money?

Masamitsu pointed out that (as of March '99) the DVD Forum has not finished specifying, licensing or sanctioning DVD-Video streams over user accessible busses like FireWire, USB, NuBus, VESA, ISA, etc. (to date, only PCI and limited proprietary interfaces have been licensed).

Is the DVD disc (whether video or data) able to work in any computer DVD drive? As of today, the answer is a resounding NO! I think a fair comparison is the "floppy disk," although the technology is very different. The DVD disc is essentially a high-density CD-ROM disc--with a lot more available space (up to 17 gigabytes--a single DVD-ROM's capacity is equal to about 27 CD-ROMs). There are multiple "books" (specific format specifications), different for each type of information, whether data, audio, video, mixed mode, or desktop players. Only the desktop and extended play video books are actually new to the DVD industry. The drive technology doesn't seem to limit where or how the discs are used, as most of the drives are either SCSI or PCI based, thus carrying the greatest flexibility and usability.

One of the biggest problems is the combination of DVD burning software used to "master" a given disc and the OS (Operating System) the discs are accessed through. This combination is what actually sets the limits. What the drive is physically attached to and controlled by also sets limits, as to which type of books can be assessed on a given system. Like the floppy disk, a DVD disc written in a different format will only work on the drive (and OS) capable of reading and using specific formats (books).

Masamitsu stated that, "If the Wintel PCs appear to be more "compatible" with DVD discs that are coming off factory lines it is very much a technical mirage. Just because a disc runs on your PC or on a DVD-Video player does not mean that it was mastered properly." Masamitsu points out that there are more "foot soldiers" in the industry working on patches and work-a-rounds (in the Wintel market) than in the Mac market. The Software Publishers Association once estimated that 1 in 30,000 software programs are written for Mac (vs. the Microsoft Windows environment), and most of the large profitable CD-ROM companies either don't produce Mac programs, or offer hybrid discs. Very few companies publish Mac-only versions.

The problem, from a development standpoint, is to make a disc that will maximize profit potential. Why develop for limited markets? Companies have to evaluate the assorted costs vs. probable profit. Because there are fewer Mac CD-ROM discs, those that do exist tend to get more press than the average Wintel CD-ROM disc and generally finds a more open market with less competition (in the Mac world). However, other than Apple itself, I can't honestly think of any major software company that hasn't made the transition to the Wintel world. Furthermore, most of those companies now have more Wintel-based products than Mac-compatible products, simply because of the wider user base, and thus, greater profit potential.

A development company must be willing to invest a great deal of money in a Macintosh system that has a limited life expectancy, a Mac-compatible DVD burner (which if SCSI, will also function on a Wintel-based system), Mac-compatible development tools (that have many verifiable bugs and problems with no known patches), and a common file format (such as QuickTime), which can be addressed by both Windows and the Mac system, though may not be the developer's first or best choice. These extra steps, extra expenses, and added knowledge requirements eliminate a large majority of developers. Companies are in business to make money--not increase their gamble, their expense and the hassles of getting the product to market.

In regard to the emerging rewritable market, Apple is supporting DVD-RAM (by Hitachi, Panasonic and Toshiba). However, once the competing DVD+RW drive is finally released by Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, Philips, Ricoh, Sony and Yamaha, it may have an edge over DVD-RAM as well as Pioneer's forthcoming competing DVD-R/W, simply because of the companies behind DVD+RW and their immense current market share.

Unless there is cross-platform, read-write compatibility, Apple's newest push toward the DVD-RAM drive may either die on the proverbial "Apple vine," or divide end-users even more. An example of what can happen to incredible technology that is not cross-platform is SyQuest, which never built or popularized a Wintel-compatible version (until it was too late). Iomega's success with the Zip and Jazz drives happened because they brought a product to market that crossed platforms, and allowed people to exchange and use data from multiple types of computers with minimal problems.

I have a great deal of respect for Steve "Superman" Jobs, and the tough decisions he has had to make to keep Apple's corporate head above water. He has done great, and things are beginning to move in the right direction. However, in my humble opinion it is time for Apple and Jobs to accept that they need to conform -- create compatibility--and take advantage of the masses. Computers are here to stay. The market demands upgradability, lower prices, flexibility and support.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please direct them to Terry E. Mercer via email at: terry@helpus.com

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