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Another delay for DVD

Disputes over formats have again pushed back the launch of digital video disks. Steve Homer reports
For dedicated gadget shoppers, some disappointing news emerged from Germany last week. The present for the person who has everything will not be in the shops this Christmas. Yet again, DVD, Digital Video Disk, is being delayed.

DVD, as a growing number of frustrated potential customers know, is the perfect way of bringing movies into the sitting room. A movie, with soundtracks in several languages, will fit on a single CD-sized disk. In fact, one disk can store up to four normal-length movies.

Everyone seems to agree that DVD is wonderful. The trouble is that battles along the way have slowed its progress. Originally scheduled for a launch last year (when it launched in the US and Japan), DVD was then due in Europe this spring. The Berlin show was supposed to be the launching ground, but squabbles over which sound system to use in Europe, problems with chips, a lack of encoding facilities and foot-dragging by the Hollywood studios held back the launch.

But at a major press conference here, the studios and the consumer electronics companies finally managed to present a unified front. With the exception of Fox and Disney, all the studios announced support for DVD in Europe, launching around 100 titles next spring, with some 15 more being added each month. Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and Hitachi, for their part, all agreed to launch their players next spring.

DVD players are already on sale in the UK. Panasonic and Thomson have launched players with little software to run on them. To make matters worse, these players will be incompatible with the software released next year.

DVD supports high quality audio, but there are two competing systems battling for this market. Dolby's AC-3 is popular in the US, but European companies have been pushing for MPEG-2, as it will be used in digital TV. While the Hollywood studios were expected to boycott MPEG-2, they all announced support, saying no titles would be released in AC-3.

While the Panasonic and Thomson players will be able to produce stereo, they will not be able to provide the six channel output that most other players will offer.

But there are still battles to come. DVD-Rom, a version of DVD aimed at the computer market, is just beginning to launch in the UK, and again there is little software on offer. But battles over a recordable version of DVD-Rom, called DVD-Ram are causing confusion.

Instead of the 4.7Gb DVD-Rom will hold, a DVD-Ram will hold only 2.7Gb. But Sony, Philips and computer company Hewlett-Packard have broken ranks to propose a recordable disk that will store 3 gigabytes. These companies claim that their disks will use a technology that is more compatible with earlier disks and so give consumers less problems. With DVD-Ram expected to be launched at the end of next year, it looks like another fine mess in the offing.

Sadly, for domestic users, all the companies agree that it will be two or three years before we see a recordable DVD player.

But, with a mass of players and a huge raft of titles, DVD looks set for take off next spring and looks almost certain to be the big present of Christmas 1998. About time, too, you might sayn