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Published: Monday, 8/29/2005

DVD dispute repeats history

Consumers in the United States could waste billions of dollars on home electronics products over the next few years because Japanese companies can't settle a three-year squabble on how to merge their technology for the next generation of DVD players.

The stalemate between companies led by the Sony Corp. and the Toshiba Corp. is reminiscent of the situation 20 years ago, when electronics companies marketed two incompatible kinds of video cassette players - VHS and Betamax.

VHS players would not play Betamax tapes, and vice versa. More people bought VHS players, however, and that format eventually won out. When it became impossible to buy or rent new Betamax movies, consumers trashed tons of Betamax players, cameras, and cassettes.

Sony, by the way, invented the bummer Betamax technology, while VHS came from JVC and Panasonic.

Consumers would have been spared a lot of confusion, frustration, and wasted money if those companies had agreed on a "unified" videocassette technology. With that approach, all VCR products would have been able to use cassettes from any manufacturer.

Now it's dj vu all over again with high-definition DVD technology, which will mean movies and games with crystal-clear pictures, larger-than-life sound, and other stunning effects.

Sony and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (which makes Panasonic brand products), have been developing a technology known as "Blu-ray." Toshiba, along with NEC Corp. and Sanyo Electric Co., are developing "HD DVD" technology. Blu-ray disks supposedly have a more sophisticated format and hold 25 gigabytes of data compared to HD DVD's 15 GB. But Blu-ray may be pricier.

Negotiations on unifying the technology reached a stalemate, and broke off last week. The competitors are now racing to put incompatible high-definition DVD players, recorders, and game consoles on the store shelves. Some will debut for the holiday shopping season.

Both camps should show more respect for their customers by taking a deep breath, going back to the negotiating table, and settling on one high-definition DVD standard.

Consumers do show brand loyalty for electronics products, and many may agree that it is dishonorable to repay them with a rerun of the VHS-Betamax fiasco. As things stand now, some customers are bound to get burned if the high-definition DVD impasse continues.

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