For High Speed, Vast Storage And More, Try Web-Connected DVDs

April 16, 2001
Storing more information and transferring it far faster, the DVD circumvents the bandwidth limits of the Internet.

See associated figure

Broadband is still a long way off. Some say it could be 10 to 15 years before much of the U.S. is wired up with DSL or fiber optics. By the end of 2001, there may be no more than 5 million to 7 million broadband-user homes. That's about 5% of the total homes in the U.S. Half of the users will have DSL modems, which need about 24 hours to download a movie. The other half will have cable modems that might be a bit faster—that is, if no one else in the neighborhood also is downloading a movie on the shared network.

"That's why streaming video on demand is only for those who aren't very demanding," says Jim Taylor, author of DVD Demystified, Second Edition and chief of DVD technology at Sonic Solutions, Novato, Calif. "Maybe adequate bandwidth will arrive somewhere between 2005 and 2010," he adds.

But there's a remarkable innovation that can bring the Web and the DVD closer together. Called Web-connected DVD, it circumvents some crucial bottlenecks resulting from limited bandwidth, thereby bringing a bundle of benefits to both the DVD and the Web.

Web-connected DVD builds on the phenomenally rapid evolution of DVD. In its early days, DVD stood for "digital video disk." Some say the acronym today stands for "digital versatile disk," while others, somewhat sardonically, claim that it no longer stands for anything. All of this aside, everyone agrees that DVD is a powerful, multifunctional, removable storage device with a host of untapped potential.

Our requirements for storage are virtually insatiable. For example, within Intel Corp., some 500,000 e-mails are transmitted each day. That's an average of 10 e-mails per person, or 1.6 Gbytes of information. A single DVD, then, can store five days of Intel's e-mail. Moreover, DVD-storage costs are 0.005 cents/Mbyte, compared to 2.3 cents/
Mbyte for a hard drive.

Put another way, a single-sided DVD can handle high-quality digital video in MPEG-2 format, like a two-hour movie. If double-sided, it can hold approximately eight hours of very high-quality video, or 30 hours if it's VHS quality.

To measure success to date, look at public acceptance. The DVD is the all-time winner in the consumer marketplace. By its third birthday, 6 million players were sold in the U.S. Over 10 million players and 30 million DVD-ROM computers were sold worldwide as well.

The DVD will celebrate its fifth birthday this year. Unlike CD standards that evolved over a quarter of a century, DVD standards have emerged relatively quickly, building upon CD technology. Beginning as a read-only data delivery format, it has blossomed into both recordable and rewritable versions. Each evolving version has tried to maintain some semblance of compatibility with its kin.

Two events played major roles in structuring the DVD. In 1994, the motion picture industry formed the Hollywood Digital Video Disc Advisory Group. It's objective was to define a disk media that would provide higher quality and higher reliability than tape. Then in 1995, the Computer Industry Alliance was formed. The members took it upon themselves to ensure that the next-generation disk technology would meet their customers' needs.

Much Faster, Too Depending on its genre, a DVD holds anywhere from seven to 25 times as much data as a CD. The microscopic pits on a DVD used to store information are more tightly packed than those in a CD (see "DVD Technology­A Synopsis," below). The DVD is nine times faster, too. It has a 12-cm diameter, as does the CD. This means that both the disks and the disk drives can be manufactured on existing CD production lines with only slight changes.

A DVD serves two separate and distinct domains—computer data storage and audio/video storage. A DVD-ROM drive reads computer data from a DVD-ROM disk. But a DVD player, like its ancestors the VCR and CD player, plays back video and audio from a DVD. Taylor points out, however, that as computers become true multimedia systems, and set-top box designers include more computer features, the distinction will gradually disappear.

The DVD is beginning to supplant the CD and VHS tapes in the entertainment world. This transformation will probably extend over several decades. Also, the DVD is a random-access technology. No fast forwarding or rewinding is necessary, as is the case with VHS tapes, making it possible to immediately jump to any spot in the medium.

On the computer side of things, DVD-ROM drives and recordable DVD drives are beginning to supplant CD technology as well. Because PCs are so equipped, they will play a larger role in entertainment. There will be those who want to watch movies on a PC. Perhaps they're college students in the dorm, or airline passengers with laptops, or simply those who want to view better video than TVs presently provide.

Web-connected DVD combines the best of a DVD with the best of the Internet. Combining DVD with the dynamics of a Web connection introduces a freshness and interaction that never existed before. This includes a large library of options that can extend the life of a DVD, with Web-based up-grades such as supplements, news, and special offers.

Microsoft's PowerPoint can be enhanced by a DVD and by links via the Web, adding overlay graphics and animation. Films on DVD can be enhanced by adding subtitles for any of the 27 languages used in Europe. Suppose a vendor ships a DVD containing 500 games. Five are free, but the purchaser needs to buy the balance, via the Internet, to obtain the key to the remaining 495.

Some Web-connected authoring tools are based on HTML, one of the easiest and most widely supported development environments. One of the companies active in this sector, InterActual Technologies Inc. of San Jose, Calif., has introduced its Player 2.0. This complete media playback architecture enables the content to be authored once and then delivered across multiple platforms (

Web-enabled DVD suggests we're moving toward a centralized home server that supports all home computer activities, as well as what are today's TV screens and audio systems, in multiple rooms. Having Web-connected DVD capabilities in such a centralized server makes a lot of sense. Today, though, virtually no one has a server at home that can handle what we're talking about.

Summing up Web-connected DVD, Taylor says, "Anything you can do on the Web, you can do with Web-connected DVD—and more."

The DVD itself is today's horse race, much as the tape-cartridge contest between Betamax and VHS was the storage industry's Kentucky Derby 25 years ago. But in the case of DVD, there are far more fillies at the starting gate. There's a mind-boggling, alphabet soup of acronyms—DVD-RAM, DVD+RW, and more—arriving in the pot all the time. The question of which technology or technologies will prevail is still unresolved. The major contenders are:

  • DVD-ROM: A well-designed update of the CD-ROM and the base format underlying everything. The DVD-ROM had its beginnings in 1994 with initiatives by Toshiba and Warner Bros. The various writable formats are all variants of DVD-ROM. One such disk holds from 4.4 to 16 Gbytes of data, or about 25 times the capacity of a 650-Mbyte CD-ROM, and it can send data to a computer faster than a CD-ROM. DVD-ROM drives will eventually make CD-ROM drives extinct. About 300 million CD-ROM drives were installed worldwide last year, compared to about 45 million DVD-ROM drives.
  • DVD-Video: A popular format for high-quality MPEG-2 video and audio Surroundsound. Some critics say that the true potential of DVD-Video was compromised by politically motivated restrictions and technical limitations. DVD-Video, however, is the "base standard" that will play in virtually any DVD drive.
  • DVD-Audio: It inherits much of its architecture from DVD-Video. It's expected that by 2002 most DVD players will play both DVD-Audio and DVD-Video disks. DVD-Audio enables Surroundsound at full bandwidth. It brings higher quality and provides copy protection for the audio. It runs at sampling rates ranging from 96 to 192 kHz, with 24-bit Surroundsound enabling 40 to 45 minutes of recording. With meridian lossless packing (MLP), this jumps up to 74 to 80 minutes.

Rewritable DVD has engendered tremendous appeal, due to the growing popularity of multimedia applications and the need to store and share large amounts of data. In the beginning, floppies and other storage media evolved into CD-ROMS with 650-Mbyte capacity. They in turn evolved into rewritable storage technology. Today there's a recordable-once DVD format, DVD-R, and three rewritable, high-density optical formats: the DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW.

  • DVD-R: DVD recordable is a 4.7-Gbyte single-sided or 9.4-Gbyte double-sided record-once, read-many-times, DVD format. It's DVD Forum approved. Introduced by Pioneer in 1997, DVD-R is the most compatible media at this point (Fig. 2). It can be read in an existing DVD-ROM, it will play in 90% or more of the players, and its life is projected as at least 100 years. A descendant of CD-R, it's mostly used for authoring DVD-Video and DVD-ROM disks. The first CD-R drives cost $140,000. Early DVD-R drives were $17,000 but are now below $1000. In 1998, only one DVD-R vendor existed. Today, there are five.
  • DVD-RAM: Introduced in 1998, this rewritable format is DVD Forum approved. In the forum's judgement, it's the best format for random-access storage. Principal backers include Panasonic, Toshiba, and Hitachi. A DVD-RAM drive has high capacity and low storage cost. The drive costs are lower than DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW. Critics point out that it can't read both sides, so the disk must be flipped. DVD-RAM drive sales are expected to grow from 240,000 in 1999 to 3.3 million in 2001.
  • DVD-RW: This is a rewritable version of DVD-R. Sponsors include Pioneer and Sharp. A DVD-RW video recorder is currently available in Japan. It employs phase-change recording and has an advantage over DVD-RAM in being far less expensive and backwards compatible with existing hardware. DVD-RW can provide over 1000 read/write cycles compared to approximately 100 for VHS. The technology, though, provides no defective-sector media management.
  • DVD+RW: This is the only re-writable format that provides full, noncartridge compatibility with existing DVD players and DVD-ROM drives for both real-time recording and random-data recording across PC and entertainment applications. Capacity is 4.7 Gbytes in the single-sided version, and 9.4 Gbytes in the double-sided version. DVD+RW has an advantage due to its compatibility with the installed base of DVD-ROM drives and DVD-Video players. Sponsors include Sony, Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, Yamaha, and MCC/Verbatim. Players are expected to be introduced this year.

A paragon of disk compatibility is the Audio CD. To this day, the Audio CD is still the only platform that lets users put any audio CD in any CD player and know that it will work all the time. Things aren't progressing as well with DVD compatibility. As Taylor notes, "The compatibilities and incompatibilities of the physical and logical formats are a bewildering muddle."

As for a shake out, it will ultimately depend on the marketplace, as was the case with Betamax versus VHS. One of the hindrances is a chicken or egg conundrum. Regarding some DVD versions, player people say that no disks are out there, so why build drives? Meanwhile, content owners say that no drives are out there, so why make disks?

The CD was a success partly because the technology wasn't overly advanced. Yet it ran into some impassible roadblocks, such as in educational media. Jennifer S. Maydole, instructional multimedia coordinator of the North Central Educational Service District, Wenatchee, Wash., learned this from her experience with the CD. If users aren't comfortable with a technology, they won't use it. Maydole introduced a set of instructional materials on CDs, but teachers balked because, as she says, "If a technology hasn't become comfortable at home, it won't be used in the classroom."

Key, though, is that all of these new players be built to the same standard. Paul G. Holmes, chief executive of the DVD Association, summed it up best at the opening session of the 2001 DVDA International Conference in February at Las Vegas. "From our experience with the compact-disk industry, we know that it's extremely important that any interactive DVD standard be backed by all of the manufacturers. Every DVD must simply not be perceived as a product from a single manufacturer, but instead as a product made to one international standard, supported by all."

References:DVD Demystified, Second Edition, Jim Taylor, McGraw-Hill, 2001.

"DVD-RAM/RW/ASMO/MMVF: The Many Faces of High-Density Re-writable Optical," Dana J. Parker,

Organizations That Contributed To This Report
DVD Association
(702) 655-5800

Hewlett-Packard Co.
(970) 898-6852

Hitachi America Ltd.
(650) 589-8300

Mitsubishi Electronics
America Inc.
(408) 730-5900

Panasonic Industrial Co.
(408) 945-5600

Philips Electronics
(408) 570-5644

Pioneer New Media
Technologies Inc.
(310) 952-2111

Sonic Solutions
(415) 893-8000

Sony Electronics Inc.
(408) 955-5036


To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Electronic Design, create an account today!