DVD: The Medium is No Longer the Message

You would have thought the hardware companies who trumpeted at the January 2006 Consumer Electronics Show that their video DVD players would be in US retailers' showrooms by September 1996 would have learned an important lesson from the bungled DAT launch almost 10 years ago: Without first getting complete agreement of the software industry on substantive issues, it's foolish to announce a firm launch date for a new medium. September came and went without DVD discs or players being available in US stores. In fact, all that happened was that the bottom fell out of sales of 12" laserdiscs and laserdisc players.

However, as I write these words in early October, it looks as though the copyright/encryption issues have been resolved, and that some video DVD players will reach the Japanese market before Christmas. I certainly expect that all the big manufacturers will have production DVD players on show at the 1997 WCES. What I don't expect soon is any agreement on a high-quality audio disc based on DVD, even though Malcolm Omar Hawksford reports in this issue (p.119) that the specification for DVD's audio channels does include the potential for a linear-PCM signal at 48kHz and 96kHz sample rates.

When I recently visited Malcolm Omar at his lab at the University of Essex in England, I took with me a copy of Sonata, Stereophile's new Liszt Piano Sonata CD (STPH008-2). As we sat down to listen to it, the thought struck me that all these worthy efforts at setting DVD standards are adhering to an obsolete, McLuhan-esque paradigm. I brought Malcolm a dedicated audio medium, a CD. But I could have taken him my music as 600 megabytes of PC WAV files on a CD-R. I even could have e-mailed it to him—with both us having Internet access via local telephone calls, the only drawback would have been the inconvenience.

The point is, with a data format agreed-upon for the new high-density medium in the form of DVD-ROM, the only standard you need is a software protocol. I believe that the days when you will buy one kind of optically encoded 120mm disc for video, another kind for audio, and still a third kind for computer data, are numbered. Want to set a new standard regarding the number of audio channels or the sampling rate? All you'll need to do is include a piece of driver code on the CD- or DVD-ROM so that the recipients' computers can untangle the data.

The paradigm for DVD is not CD or LD; rather, it is audio CDs containing multimedia computer data, such as the Rolling Stones' Stripped (Virgin 8 41040 2)—or multimedia CD-ROMs containing music data, such as All Access: the Horde Festival CD-ROM (Philips 310 691 025-2)—that tentatively set the course for the single-medium future of home entertainment.