The good news: The major manufacturers of disc technology have agreed on a single format for high-density digital video discs; it will incorporate present and future CD-ROM, CD-i, Video CD and CD-Audio formats. The bad news: No one seems able to predict when the new format will be available, what the final specs will look like or what the products will cost. Only one thing is certain at the moment: The format will have a significant impact on multimedia producers and their products.

The new format doesn't even have a name at this point and is being called the "basic format" by the companies involved in putting it together. Until Sept. 15, it looked as though there would be a format war with Toshiba and Matsushita supporting the SD (Super-Density Disc) format, and Sony and Philips supporting the MMCD (Multimedia Compact Disc) format. The two sides agreed to combine their format specifications, merging the double-side technology of the Toshiba disc with the dual-layer technology of the Sony disc. The result is a disc that's the same size as a compact disc and backward-compatible with all the major formats except Laserdiscs. The specs allow for three densities: a single-side, single-layer format (4.7 gigabytes); a single-side, dual-layer format (9 gigabytes); and a double-side, dual-layer format (18 gigabytes). The single-side, single-layer format, which would be the least expensive to manufacture and would require the least expensive players, will be able to hold a 135-minute movie, using the MPEG-2 encoding included in the specifications. Over 95 percent of Hollywood movies are 135 minutes or less, so the major studios are generally pleased with the agreement.

The press has been covering the agreement as a DVD (Digital Video Disc) product announcement, but digital movies are only one aspect of the agreement. While DVD will supersede the current Video CD format, equally important -- and perhaps ultimately more important -- a much larger market -- is the new high-density CD-ROM format that will appear on retailers' shelves at about the same time. Philips plans to sell two disc players in early 1997: a DVD box that will include an MPEG-2 decoder chip and extra memory for a buffer, and a high-density CD-ROM drive that most likely will sell for less because it won't include the MPEG-2 chip or the memory buffer. The basic format also includes provisions for a higher-fidelity audio CD, and Philips has indicated that it will create a new high-density CD-i format that's compatible with the basic format. According to Philips, an erasable high-density CD-ROM drive should be available by 1998 with a writable capacity of 2 to 3 gigabytes.

The official line from the companies involved in the agreement is that DVD players will be available at retail for $500 by next September. Privately, many key executives acknowledge that $800 is a more realistic price and 1997 a more realistic time frame. While the companies have agreed to the broad outlines of a basic agreement, there are still important details that have to be worked out, including how the royalties will be split among the various companies that filed patents during the development process. The companies still have to develop the chips that will be used in the players, and build factories to manufacture both the hardware and the software.

"Right now, there are only two experimental places in the world that can encode high-quality MPEG-2," says Ted Pine, an analyst at InfoTech, a Woodstock, Vt., research firm. "They're saying they're going to have 500 movies available at launch, at a minimum. But when you run the numbers -- from my perspective, that means how many shifts, how many hours, how long does it take -- you wonder how they're going to do it. Something has to give." Pine points out that, so far, no one is talking about how they're going to achieve backward compatibility. Pine says the players and software most likely won't be available until 1997. That would allow time for 6X and 8X CD-ROM drives to become firmly established at retail. "Everything you have to do to get to 12X or anything higher is a Herculean engineering effort," Pine says. And that's not worth it for either the manufacturers or the consumers if a much larger capacity format is just around the corner.

For multimedia producers, the two key questions are: Does the new format offer significant advances over current formats for a given application, and when will the business and/or consumer customer be ready to adopt the new format?

"We're beginning to think about it now," says Katie Moriarty, product manager at Philips Media. She expects some producers and consumers will be reluctant to adopt 6X and 8X CD-ROM drives because of the imminent arrival of the new high-density format. "On the other hand, those 9 gigabytes have to come from somewhere. It's going to take an awfully long time if you're building across a network to compile that information."

How quickly producers adopt the new format will depend heavily on the application. Producers already cramped by current storage and delivery formats are anxious to have the capacity and the quality upgrade. "Primarily, our work is being done on CD-i, and we're limited by the format," says Haim Ariav, president/partner at New York-based Muffin-Head Productions. "We're doing a project right now for a cosmetics/fragrance client. These companies are so video-rich. Everything they do is on video. Their annual presentations, their corporate presentations, all of their commercials, all of their training -- it's all image-oriented. We're limited by 650 to 700 megabytes of space."

On the other hand, Ariav notes that his decision to move to the new format will be dictated by client needs. Clients that have a lot of money invested in current technology may not be eager to switch to a new format. "It's hard enough to convince people that CD-i is a viable platform," says Ariav. "Then in two years, we'll go to them and ask, 'What do you think of the new DVD player?' Then they'll say, 'You just sold us 200 machines 2-1/2 years ago. Why are you trying to sell us new machines?' "

John Slack, CEO at Media Design Group in Winter Park, Fla., agrees with the customer-driven approach. "We're very much aware of what's going on with DVD and plan to move to it as soon as it's economically feasible for our corporate clients," he says. "But in a lot of cases, corporations may not require the level of quality that the new format and MPEG-2 are going to bring with them. A lot of the stuff corporations are doing is training-based, as opposed to image pieces."

The bottom line is probably best expressed by producers such as Robin Danek, general manager of VuCom Graphics, a production house in Troy, Mich. She can hardly wait to get to the level of capacity and quality that DVD, in whatever its final specifications, promises. VuCom will likely be an early adopter, she says. "The new format will allow us a lot more space, especially for sound. We're sick of trying to stuff an elephant through a garden hose." MMP

David English is a Greensboro, N.C.-based freelance writer.