The magic disc is here

Tobias Jones on the techno revolution coming to your home
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The Independent Online
ON TOTTENHAM Court Road, London's golden half-mile for technophiles, a revolution is under way. By the end of the year, it will have spread to homes and offices across the land.

The arrival of the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD), a "holy grail" format that brings together films, games, computer programs and studio-quality sound on a single CD-sized disc, has taken the electronics market by storm. "Every third person who comes in is asking me about DVDs," says Alan Porter, a salesman on Tottenham Court Road.

In the US and Japan, DVD players are already outselling CD players. DVD brings together CD-Roms, videos and CDs in one user-friendly format, with images that have almost twice the clarity of videotape. "DVDs are going to integrate all systems, from television to computers to hi-fis," says Mr Porter.

Unlike other recent technical innovations, such as the Mini-Disc or Betamax video, which have failed to capture the public imagination, DVD is virtually guaranteed to be a success because there is agreement across all sectors of the entertainment industry that it will be the standard format of the future. There won't be the commercial battles of the past, when those who created new formats fought to have them accepted as the standard medium.

"DVD is the future - it embodies the grand unification theory of entertainment and business media," says Jim Taylor, author of DVD Demystified, which explores the implications of the new technology.

According to John Thompson, chairman of the British Kinematography, Sound and Television Society, DVD is the fastest-selling consumer product in the history of the US. "It took CDs five years to achieve similar sales penetration. They've already sold close to a million DVD players in America, and are projected to sell another 15 million in the next two years. And because material is encrypted on DVDs using the same system as digital television, set-top boxes will soon come with DVD players as standard."

Consumers weary of constant technological upgrades needn't worry. Roy Brooker, a consultant at the Consumers' Association, says: "DVDs are an extension of CDs, and the players will be able to play the old compact discs. The advantage, of course, is that they will also play the discs that contain films or games. The public will find that they've got DVD by default, as computers and hi-fis increasingly rely on them."

The DVD market is being driven by the appetite for Hollywood films. Columbia, Warner and Polygram have already started to release their back catalogues and it is estimated that 300 or so films will be on sale in Britain by Christmas.

The implications for the computer industry are potentially even more profound. David Weeks, project manager for Microsoft's Windows 98, maintains: "CD-Roms will become obsolete, as all PCs will soon come with DVDs as standard, simply because they can hold up to 26 times the amount of data. Windows 98 already has DVD support, which will be backwards-compatible [able to read the old CD-Roms]. Gamers are going to love DVD because of the interaction, and the stunningly realistic backgrounds." However, the likes of Nintendo and Sega are not as yet servicing the DVD industry.

One point of controversy in DVD development is the concept of regional zoning: players from differing zones (America, Europe etc) will only be able to play discs from the same areas. It is an attempt by Hollywood to patrol pirating of films, but also to stagger releases and control worldwide prices. Another disadvantage is that, as yet, DVDs are still unable to record directly from television, although manufacturers promise that is just a few years away.

Jean-Luc Renaud, editor of the trade publication DVD Intelligence, is optimistic that the new format will take off. "DVD players are hitting the streets for the price of a good television set," he says. "The first machines on the market are around pounds 400 to pounds 550. Compare that to the first video-audio player, which cost pounds 800, and that was 15 years ago. There needs to be a huge awareness campaign, but DVDs are definitely here to stay."