The hotly disputed format for a Super CD has nearly been settled. Steve Homer reports
Just when you thought you had got to grips with what a CD-Rom was, they come along and change it all. Next year will see the birth of the Super CD-Rom. It does not have a name yet but it is sure to be big news - if there is any justice, bigger than Windows 95 because it will be much more important.

Most of the details have been published already, following a public fight between Sony and Philips on one side and Time Warner and Toshiba on the other. The two camps supported two different disk formats. In the end the computer companies, notably Microsoft, Apple, Compaq and IBM banged their heads together, and the two camps are now finalising details of their compromise disk.

The main points have already been thrashed out. The new disks - let's call them Super CDs - will contain up to 9 gigabytes of data, more than 13 times as much as today's 650-megabyte disks. They should be in the shops before Christmas next year.

What will make these disks so important is that they will be used not only in computers but also in consumer electronic products, such as the machines that will replace video recorders and in video-games machines.

Initially the two big markets are likely to be movies on disk and as a new version of CD-Rom. For the movie industry, Super CDs will be cheaper to make than VHS tapes and will give a much clearer image. The disadvantage is that there will be no recording version for several years. This is partly a technical problem but also a problem of copyright. Each disk will be able to store more than four hours of absolutely wonderful digital images. Unlike today's bootleg videos, digital Super CD copies will be perfect every time (just as a computer disk copy is perfect). So until Hollywood is satisfied that there is good enough copy protection technology built into the Super CD player, we will not see a recordable version.

The Super CD also looks set to dominate the CD-Rom market, particularly for entertainment and edutainment applications where there is demand for extensive multimedia. Current multimedia encyclopaedias have plenty of pictures and sounds but only a handful of film clips, because they take up so much space. A Super CD-Rom would be able to carry a good deal of footage.

The format will also be ideal for ever more space-hungry games. Wing Commander IV, due out in December, will come on seven CDs, a precedent already set by Phantasmagoria, released in October. It is a sure bet that as soon as the new disk format comes out games designers will want to design games that use real video - the real space-eater.

The Super CD will bring big change into our sitting-rooms and to our computers. By the end of the century, it may well be one of the major forces pulling the two areas together.

The new drives will be compatible with existing CDs, so there will be a migration over a few years. New improved drives will be only marginally more expensive.