The History of DVD (Part 1)

[Note: This story was written in 2007 and contains contemporary information and speculation that may no longer be accurate.]

Panasonic, Philips, and Pioneer are marketing the bejesus out of their respective recordable DVD decks. There are likely ads for one, two or all three companies and the varying DVD recordable offerings in the magazine you now hold in your hand.

The problem is, a disc recorded in one of these decks will likely not play in one of the others. Why? Each company wants to have the winning format. Winning the DVD recordable format war means market dominance. Market dominance means licensing dollars when other companies put out decks using your format. And, of course, Winning the DVD recordable format war means technology bragging rights. So, we get a DVD recordable Tower of Babel.

This format brouhaha also extends to high definition DVD recording. There are at least three different HD-DVD-R schemes being floated for consideration, and there’s no sign that a consensus will be reached any time soon.

It could be worse. The same sort of format war could have broken out when DVD itself was first being developed in the early 1990s. But largely through the efforts of one man over a two-year period, the warring DVD camps came to a consensus on a unified format and copy protection scheme, resulting in the one and only DVD we know today.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Several people have been either credited with, or claim credit for, “inventing” or being “the father” or “the godfather” of DVD. In reality, there is no “inventor” of DVD. Several people and companies contributed important technology and marketing bits to what was an obvious product.

Putting video on a disc is an idea older than television. In the late 1920s, British TV inventor John Logie Baird devised several Gramophone-based video disc schemes, and in 1935, such a system using a wax disc and yielding a whopping 30 lines of resolution, was actually demonstrated at London’s Selfridges department store.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that serious work on a consumer video disc system was started. At least four other development efforts were underway to develop a video disc system during the 1960s and 70s. A partnership between 3M and Stanford Research Institute resulted in the LaserDisc, introduced by Pioneer and Philips in late 1978. In 1981, RCA entered the video disc fray with its capacitance electronic disc system — CED — which used a stylus to electronically read peaks and valleys from grooves in a 12-inch disc, eerily reminiscent of Baird’s 50-year-old ideas. CED’s commercial failure three years later nearly destroyed RCA.

The 12-inch LaserDisc was not a hit with mainstream consumers either, and it seemed that VHS would remain the dominant format for prerecorded video. That changed with the introduction of the CD in 1982, its computer counterpart CD-ROM in October 1983 and Philips’ interactive video version CD-Interactive (CD-i) in 1987.

Capacity Squeeze

All these video disc formats used analog video that barely matched VHS in quality. Every consumer electronics engineer worth his pocket protector knew that the next logical step was putting digital video on the five-inch disc. There was one major problem: how do you squeeze enough multi-gigabytes worth of the digital video necessary for a two-hour movie on a 4.75-inch disc designed to hold just 650 megabytes?

The first solution was a higher density disc with tighter pit geometries. Engineers managed to shrink the microscopic pits that hold the digital signals on a poly carbonate disc, then moved the pits closer together. This shrinkage and compacting resulted in a capacity boost seven times that of a standard CD.

But even the increased disc space wasn’t enough. The digital video needed to be compressed as well. The solution came in 1988 out of a newly-formed subcommittee of the International Standards Organization (ISO), the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG). MPEG’s first digital video compression specification, MPEG-1, was capable of a 1- to 1.5 megabit per second bit rate, the same as CD, and was used to create the first digital video disc, the VideoCD.

Essentially, the MPEG schemes examined the digital video signal and eliminated redundant data, primarily in stationery backgrounds and static scenes. VideoCD, and its MPEG-2 successor, Super VideoCD, both of which hold around about an hour’s worth of video, is still a popular product in Asia, and VideoCDs will play on any current DVD player.

In the early 1990s, all the major consumer electronics companies had begun experimenting with the next generation of MPEG digital video compression algorithms, MPEG-2, capable of a bit rate of 10 mbps.

The most serious MPEG-2 and disc technical research was taking place at the Tokyo research labs of Toshiba, Matsushita and Sony, and at the Eindhoven, Holland-based Dutch labs of Philips. At Toshiba, the corporate effort was led by Koji Hase, who would become general manager of Toshiba’s DVD division, and the technical work was led by Toshiba’s chief technical officer Dr. Hisashi Yamada, although both lacked any real corporate mandate, at least at first.

“My mission was to create something that went beyond television and videos,” Hase recalled. “I found Philips’ new format called the CD-ROM, which can take 800MB. Now in those days, people were pretty happy with the floppy disc, with is 1.5MB. So my attempt to sell CD-ROM, which is 800 times bigger, was received as an outrageous proposal. I persuaded the industry that video files are pretty big and therefore you will need this, and that’s when the companies accepted it.”

Warner and Lieberfarb

While Toshiba, Matsushita, Sony and Philips and others were working on the technical problems, the more conceptual commercial groundwork was being laid by Warren Lieberfarb, president of Warner Home Video.

Warren Lieberfarb is not often described in flattering terms, but is admired for his DVD prostyletising and zealousness in seeing the format born healthy. After graduating from Wharton, he went right to the top, almost. In 1967 at the age of 23, he got a job as an assistant to a succession of Paramount Pictures presidents. After serving a stint as a consultant to videogame pioneer Atari, he moved to Warner.

In 1984, Lieberfarb was named president of the studio’s home video division, just as the video business was exploding. He was the right man at the right time, but he often rubbed people the wrong way. According to Newsweek, in his nearly 20 years at Warner, Lieberfarb had been fired twice for being too pushy. In 1989, for instance, he enlisted the help of Steve Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and boldly predicted that the LaserDisc would doom VHS.

Lieberfarb was concerned about the possibility that the next generation of digital television and video-on-demand would render VHS obsolete.

“Here I was, enjoying a nice life, running a billion-and-a-half dollar business unit and reading that we were going to be put out of business,” Lieberfarb recalled to a group of students at his alma mater of Wharton last March. “I decided that if we were going to compete, we had to change the rental model. My conclusion was you had to be able to sell movies at places where the customer does conventional shopping, like Wal-Mart, and make up in volume what you lose in margin.”

Lieberfarb also knew that the next generation home video format had to be higher quality and half the price of VHS tapes.

In 1990, Lieberfarb formed a collaboration with Philips on a next-generation disc format, but was unimpressed with Philips’ MPEG-1 efforts. In the early 1990s, Hase had met Lieberfarb as part of the negotiations that led to Toshiba buying a chunk of Time Warner.

In April 1992, Hase, knowing Lieberfarb’s desire for a next-generation video disc, finagled a half-hour meeting with Lieberfarb to explain Toshiba’s development efforts. The 30 minutes in Lieberfarb’s Burbank offices stretched to six hours, then spilled over to dinner at LA’s famous Morton’s steakhouse. Lieberfarb told Hase what he and the Hollywood community wanted in a next-generation disc, and Hase, knowing that Toshiba was helping develop MPEG-2, promised he could deliver.

“Warren had been looking for a next-generation format anyway,” Hase said. “He had approached Philips, and the answer they gave him was less than adequate. And then I showed up.”

The result was a partnership between Warner and Toshiba to develop a consumer digital video format, code-named “Taz,” after the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil character.

Back in Tokyo, Hase, now with a mandate from Lieberfarb, turned Yamada loose. Yamada consulted with engineers at Matsushita, which had developed a dual-layer technology that would help solve the capacity problems. In February 1993, Yamada traveled to LA and demonstrated the fledgling Taz to Lieberfarb. But Yamada’s prototype wasn’t compatible with music CDs.

Lieberfarb once again enjoined Philips, which owned core optical disc patents as the co-developer of CD, to make it a DVD development threesome. But in early 1994, Philips decided to partner with Sony on a slightly different digital video disc effort.

“Philips obviously thought that their technology was better,” Hase explained. “They must have thought their solution was the best. We did not agree, and that’s when we parted.” Lieberfarb saw this defection as betrayal.

“We laid out the specs for a single disc standard—the data capacity, wavelength of laser, variable rate encoding, the physical structure,” Lieberfarb told the Wharton crowd. “Philips and Sony agreed, but that turned out to be a subterfuge for delaying us and stealing our trade secrets… They had a compact disc and if you wanted to use it, you’d have to get a license from them, and any improvements you made belonged to them. They invited Matsushita to join them. They were out to make it impossible for us to compete. I announced that we would bring action against them for collusion, conspiracy and violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. When you are betrayed, you have to get back at the betrayers, right?”

Without Philips, Yamada, working with Warner’s senior vice president for technical operations Chris Cookson, finished what came to be known as the Super Density disc (SD).

SD was a dual-layer disc, essentially two .6mm discs bonded together with a clear glue to enable the laser to see through the top layer to the layer below. Each .6 mm disc could store 5 GB, which meant the dual-layer result held 10 GB. The bonding resulted in a disc less subject to warping. Dual-sided play would eventually double the capacity.

Sony and Philips, meanwhile, had come up with a single 1.2mm disc capable of holding 3.75 GB of digital video, and which used an enhanced version of the CD signal modulation scheme called EFM+. The Toshiba-Matsushita used a more experimental but more efficient modulation scheme. Sony and Philips also began working with 3M to develop its own dual-layered technology.

In May 1994, hoping to cut the legs out from under the Sony/Philips effort, Lieberfarb formed the Digital Video Disc Advisory Committee, comprised of Disney, Time Warner, Sony Pictures Entertainment, MCA, Paramount, MGM and Viacom. On September 21, Lieberfarb’s committee released a 12-point list of performance requirements for what the movie studios wanted in a next-generation disc format. These requirements demanded at least 135 minutes of playing time, room for three to five languages, multiple subtitles, multiple aspect ratios, Dolby Digital multi-channel sound, and a parental lockout feature.

SD complied with these stipulations. The Philips/Sony version did not.

Bell Ringing

Once DVD’s co-evangelizers-in-chief Hase and Lieberfarb teamed up, Philips and Sony realized it needed a high-powered partner of its own. Optical disc recording was a hot topic in the computer industry, and when you spoke about the computer industry, only three letters mattered: IBM.

In the spring of 1994, executives from IBM’s optical storage research facility in Tucson, AZ, got a call from their counterparts at Philips.

“We’re working on a second-generation CD-ROM for data storage,” said Philips, “and would IBM like to help us develop it?” IBM executive John Kulakowski was appointed point man for Big Blue, and enlisted the help of Dr. Alan Bell, a noted optical disc expert and, at the time, program manager in IBM’s Almaden Research Center and in San Jose.

The London-born Bell was sort of an accidental optical disc expert. After earning a Ph.D. in physics from Imperial College, part of London University, he came to the U.S. in 1973 on a post-doctoral fellowship at the Sarnoff Labs in Princeton, N.J. The fellowship was supposed to last only nine months, but he decided to stay to work for RCA. Within six month, he got involved in optical disc storage. In his five years at RCA, he worked on the ill-fated CED project but also collected 25 patents. After three months at Exxon, he took a job at IBM’s San Jose Almaden labs in 1982 as a researcher, specializing in magneto-optical systems. By the early 1990s, he was heavily involved in computer science application systems when he got the call from Tucson.

On May 19, Kulakowski and Bell met with Philips executives, along with representatives from Apple, Compaq and Microsoft, at Philips’ component group offices in San Jose. The computer executives got a preview of a new CD-based optical disc format Philips called high density compact disc (HDCD, not to be confused with the current high-end audio CD format). Philips wanted PC industry input for the data file system, capacity and error correction. The same group met again a month later at IBM’s San Jose offices, discussing the same PC-compliant technical nuts and bolts.

As far as IBM’s engineers were concerned, there was nothing overtly unusual about the request or the new format. There were dozens of potential next-generation optical disc formats floating around, and Philips’ effort wasn’t any more or any less intriguing than the others, including IBM’s. The computer company had no idea that Philips was developing a consumer digital video format, and according to Bell, Philips didn’t tell them.

At the time, the IT community didn’t concern itself with what Hollywood was up to, according to Bell. “No one had briefed us on that and the computer industry in those years had no idea of what was going on in Hollywood.”

During the summer, Bell received several calls from Philips and from his own bosses in Tucson for progress reports. Kulakowski finally asked Bell to take over as point man on the pending partnership for what IBM believed was simply another potential optical storage format candidate.

“My initial reaction was silence,” Bell said. “It didn’t look like an exciting thing to spend time on.” Without Bell’s enthusiasm, the Philips-IBM partnership went on a lengthy summer vacation.

Then, a week before Christmas 1994, all DVD hell broke loose.

Until the winter of 1994, few people outside the concerned parties knew of the development of a replacement for LaserDisc. But with Lieberfarb cornering the market on Hollywood content partners, and its own IBM partnership moribund, Philips and Sony decided to take their disc efforts to the court of public opinion.

On December 16, Philips and Sony issued a press release proposing specifications for a high-density multimedia CD, or MMCD. The release stated that the two companies had “begun discussions with motion picture companies and consumer electronics manufacturers with the aim of preparing an acceptable application specification for the ‘Digital Video Disc.'”

It was the press release heard ’round the world. The DVD format war had begun.

…to be continued. Click here to read Part 2.

 

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