Sony plans to unveil a DVD drive for PCs that supports both of the battling DVD-RW and DVD+RW formats.
The new drive, which the company is planning to announce in the second week of September, is significant as it is the first product to feature support for two competing recordable DVD formats in a single device and will mean users no longer have to worry about buying equipment that could become obsolete should one format fail to gain mass acceptance.
It also points to a further softening in the position of Sony, which one year ago said it had no plans to support the DVD-RW format in computer-related products.
At present, shopping for a recordable DVD drive means making a choice between one of two main formats: the DVD-RW family or the DVD+RW family.
Both formats claim playback compatibility with existing DVD drives and DVD video players, although incompatibility between certain formats or brands and certain players is fairly common.
A third format, DVD-RAM, is also available, but these discs are encased in a plastic cartridge making them more difficult to use in other DVD devices.
"For end users, this simplifies things," said Simon Shepherd, a research analyst at IDC in London. "One of the concerns we had about the standards battle was that as an ignorant end user, you might go and buy one of these drives and not know what type of media goes with it and have all sorts of problems.
"Sony is being clever with all this because it is part of the +RW camp and has been shipping Vaio (notebook PCs) with -RW drives and talking about having multi-drives for quite some time. I suppose it does avoid the issue of compatibility by having these drives and I think we will see quite a few people doing a similar sort of thing," said Shepherd. He said at least two other companies are planning similar drives.
The standards battle that is currently taking place in the recordable DVD space has its roots in the formation of the single DVD-Video format in the mid-90s. Before the 10 companies that created the DVD Forum agreed on a single format there were two competing formats: Super Density backed by Toshiba and Matsushita (Panasonic) and MMCD (Multimedia Compact Disc) backed by Sony and Philips.
The two sides eventually agreed to a common format, although friction between Sony and Philips and the other members was sometimes evident in issues such as patent licensing. However, it became most visible when Sony and Philips, along with Hewlett Packard and Ricoh, developed the DVD+RW format to compete with the DVD Forum-backed standard.
Of the four companies backing the ‘plus’ format, Sony has been straddling the middle ground. In the middle of last year, it said it would use the DVD-RW format in consumer electronics applications such as digital video recorders but stick with its ‘plus’ format in personal computing products.
Other members are firmly entrenched and at present say they have no plans to develop any devices based on the respective competing format.
"We don't have any plan now or in the future to do [a drive supporting] both [formats] because we are following the DVD Forum standard," said Midori Suzuki, a spokeswoman for Toshiba, which chairs the DVD Forum.
On the opposite side of the fence, the story was similar. "We have no plans for DVD-RW support," said Jeanet Harpe, a spokeswoman for Philips.
However, should Sony score a hit among consumers with a drive that supports both formats, other companies may be forced to change their stance.