Digital video discs new battleground for giants

Seven of the world's biggest electronics and entertainments companies, including Matsushita, Toshiba and Time Warner, are joining forces to develop a rival format of the next generation of digital video disc to the one to be produced by Sony and P hilips.

Discs, which have a very high picture and sound quality, are expected to replace video tapes. The consequences of the two-sided fight to produce the disc could prove as costly and damaging as the 1980s battle over VHS and Betamax tape systems.

Sony, which developed Betamax, lost heavily in the Eighties to Matsushita, the originator of the now universal VHS tape format.

Toshikatsu Yamawaki, managing director of Matsushita, said yesterday that the group's first products would be available in the autumn next year at about $500 (£320) for players and $30 (£19.50) for discs.

Amid this electronics battle-ground, Microsoft, the world's largest computer software company, headed by Bill Gates, might inadvertently end up with the casting vote that decides which system becomes the industry standard worldwide.

On Monday, Microsoft announced a collaborative alliance with Sony to develop innovations in consumer electronics, such as interactive video systems. However, the company is non-committal over whether it will yet support the disc format from Sony and Philips.

Yesterday's development comes a month after Sony and Philips, the third- and second-largest consumer electronics groups in the world, revealed plans to produce a single-sided disc capable of storing 135 minutes of motion picture video.

The Sony and Philips disc can store 7.4 gigabytes of digital information. While that is 11 times more than the 650-megabyte capacity of traditional compact discs, it is less than the 10 gigabytes that will be available on the rivals' planned two-sided product. Multiple-language soundtracks on films will be possible on either format.

The rival group to Sony said its format, to be known as super-density disc, offered the image and sound quality and storage capacity required by film producers and technical staff. Toshiba, which has a 6 per cent stake in Time Warner, added that the group's format allowed 270 minutes of motion picture video to be stored on both sides of a single disc the same size as a compact disc.

Toshiba's camp also includes Matsushita's MCA subsidiary, Hitachi, Pioneer Electronic Corporation, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Thomson Consumer Electronics. Alain Prestat, chairman of Thomson, added that Walt Disney was likely to approve the group's disc format.

Despite this show of strength, a Sony spokesman claimed: "Our system maintains compatibility since the system is similar to the current CD-ROM system." Existing CD-ROM material could be played on the system proposed by Sony and Philips while the rivals' system would require new production technology, he said.

However, there were signs from Philips that it was fearful of becoming involved in a protracted and damaging fight.

A spokeswoman said: "We're still aiming at one format. It's in no one's interest to have different formats."

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