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Speculation is rampant these days over which DVD format will follow the path of the Betamax.

Sony Corp. announced in August it would stop production of Betamax videocassette recorders, more than a decade after it lost to VHS in the battle for a standard format in the 1970s and ’80s.

With three different DVD formats vying to become the de facto standard, many expect a repeat of the Beta vs. VHS saga, with archrivals Sony and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. finding each other once again in opposite camps.

Yet industry watchers frown upon the widely used Beta analogy, saying it is unlikely any one format will wipe out the others in a digital age, when all data are stored in the form of mere ones and zeros. Conversion between different formats is far less daunting than it was in the analog days.

According to industry estimates, this year’s global shipments of the DVD recorders will jump to 1 million from last year’s 250,000, with between 800,000 and 900,000 of that expected to be shipped in Japan. The Daiwa Institute of Research forecasts domestic shipments to reach around 1.5 million next year and around 2.5 million in 2004.

In December 1999, Pioneer Corp. became the first company to release DVD recorders, using the read-and-write (-RW) format. But Matsushita entered in 2000 and took the lead this spring with a new, inexpensive model.

Matsushita has adopted the random access memory format along with Toshiba Corp., and the RAM camp is believed to hold about 80 percent of the domestic DVD market, prompting some to claim the death knell can already being heard for -RW.

Yet, the battle to become the standard seems far from over. Other electronics makers, including Mitsubishi Electric Corp., are preparing to market their own DVD recorders. Mitsubishi will use the -RW format.

A real showdown is on the horizon. Sony plans to begin a serious foray into DVD recorders next year with the release of dual DVD recorders that are compatible with both the +RW and -RW formats.

Currently, DVD recorders with the +RW format are not sold in Japan.

Sony claims that both RW formats are more compatible — the firm’s highest priority — with conventional playback-only DVD players than the RAM format.

“It is outrageous that recorded discs cannot be played on conventional playback-only players when the latter are already in such wide use in households,” said Rick Murai, general manager of the product planning department of Sony’s home video division.

“We have been arguing that ‘backward compatibility’ is imperative for consumer convenience.”

Matsushita and others in the RAM camp, however, tout the format’s technological superiority in digital recording, in addition to durability that allows discs to be rewritten more than 100,000 times.

Matsushita emphasized that its time-slip playback function, which lets users view a program being recorded from any point without disrupting recording, is only possible with the RAM format.

RAM supporters also say that compatibility with playback-only units was not a great concern among consumers, because not many people share their personal videos with others.

Manufacturers were originally expected to agree on a common format for DVD recorders at the independent industry body DVD Forum. But Sony and Royal Philips Electronics of the Netherlands broke away from the group to promote the +RW format after RAM was adopted as the standard.

The situation was further complicated when the -RW format, pushed by Pioneer and others, was also approved as an official format. The move was a compromise made by forum members, who feared the group would further splinter, according to people familiar with the process.

“We expect the format race will intensify from now on,” said Fumio Ohtsubo, president of Matsushita’s AVC company. “We would like it settled as quickly as possible.”

Industry watchers say that a definitive winner is not likely to emerge soon.

“The biggest difference is that users can play (read-only) DVD-videos on any DVD recorder,” said Kazuharu Miura, an analyst with the Daiwa Institute of Research. He was referring to professionally manufactured video discs for rental and sale, not discs recorded at home.

“In the case of VCRs, video rental stores had to carry both VHS and Beta tapes,” said Miura. “Betamax recorders became obsolete as Beta-format videos disappeared from store shelves.”

Instead Miura thinks the situation will evolve as it did with data storage devices, such as the Zip and magneto optical drives for personal computers. Those devices retained niche markets even after CD-R/RW machines became dominant for reading and writing compact discs.

“Users of these different devices use the Internet if they need to share data with others,” said Miura. “I think the same thing will happen with DVD recorders in the future.”

Hideo Yamada, a professor at Waseda University’s business school who studies corporate strategies on de facto standards, said it is always possible to add a conversion function between digital data stored in different formats. All the DVD formats are based on discs 12 cm in diameter.

Nevertheless, the Betamax vs. VHS analogy is likely to linger. “This is because the battle presented such a clear-cut case study for a standard race,” said Yamada, who calls Betamax “the greatest loser format.”

“Studying standards is not that simple any more,” he said. “First, you cannot even have a clear definition of a market share, as the boundary between AV and PC is disappearing and generational changes of technology are becoming blurred.”

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