Apple Hangs Tough with DVD-R

It may have folded dual-format DVD drives into its systems, but Storage Supersite Editor David Morgenstern says Apple is right to favor DVD-R over +R.

For most computer users, more is good: more megahertz, more memory and more storage capacity. However, in the DVD department, less may be more—or so Apple Computer figures. Not surprisingly, though, some of its customers dont see it that way.

Consider a recent article on the Mac Observer Web site that says Apple is "hedging its bets" by quietly adding a Sony dual-format DVD drive to the 17-inch iMac. The new drive handles both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW media, despite the fact that Apple has hitherto backed the DVD-R camp in the optical battles.

The story asserts Apple is preventing users from exploiting the benefits of both formats and maintains that the company "deliberately turned off the ability to burn in the +R format via a firmware fix to chips directly on the drives motherboard.

"Until Apple adds +R/RW support," the story continues, "users are resigned to -R/RW burning only, or to hacker Web sites offering instructions on how to modify the firmware of the drive. A dangerous alternative for those who have little experience in computers, some resourceful Mac users have reported success in adding +R/RW formatting with patches."

(In a follow-up call, an Apple spokeswoman reiterated to me the companys longstanding support for the DVD-R format, adding that it offers the best compatibility with consumer players and lower-cost media. Both offer "solid user benefits," she said.)

Despite the storys lengthy analysis and its citation of several industry gurus, I respectfully suggest that the hypothesis is flawed: Theres no good reason for Apple to support the DVD+R/RW camp at this time. In fact, there are more good reasons against such a move.

First, theres nothing conspiratorial in Apple picking the Sony DW-U10A. Its the OEM version of the DRU-500A (yet another exciting Sony product name). For Apple, the Sony mechanism isnt a dual-format drive. When coupled with Apples firmware, the DW-U10A becomes just another DVD-R drive.

This is what exactly what system vendors such as Apple and after-market storage dealers want to do: look for a variety of interchangeable OEM components that they can swap in and out of their boxes. Securing another vendor besides Pioneer ensures Apple a consistent supply of DVD drives. It also affords the company a bit of extra leverage when bargaining for prices.

This approach can often bring unexpected surprises for technologies that change frequently, such as hard disks. Each drive has its so-called "sweet spot" for price and manufacturing costs, and there are times when a new drive with a higher capacity will cost less to produce than one with a lower capacity. This usually happens at the end of a products lifecycle.

So the manufacturer will ship higher-capacity mechanisms to finish up the contracted number of older, lower-capacity drives. Of course, the storage or system vendor will simply put the mechanism in its own product and look the other way about the extra capacity—its just too much trouble to change SKUs, price lists and other specifications.

For example, a specification of 100GB can morph into "at least 100GB" when the company quietly adopts a 120GB mechanism. Only when setting up a system or checking its profile will the customer discover theyve received an extra 20GB free.

Meanwhile, the DVD-R/RW format still holds the top position for compatibility with consumer DVD players and data drives, as verified by statistics in the Mac Observer piece. While the more recent DVD+R/RW format is approaching compatibility parity with DVD-R/RW—thanks to support in newer drives—it still lags behind because of the larger installed base of older drives.

These differences in compatibility are the real issue for Apple. The drive is the hardware component of its consumer and professional solutions for publishing DVD content. The company knows that—justified or not—end users will point the finger at Apple for any incompatibility at playback time.

Worse yet, these problems could generate a support call. If the compatibility difference between the formats is 5 percent, that still means 5 percent more calls. Each one adds up and costs the company real money as well as goodwill from its customers.

And adding support for DVD+R/RW retrospectively through a firmware update also would lead to a support nightmare. Some owners would get the benefit of the change, while others wouldnt. No doubt many customers would feel cheated—or call tech support.

One storage vendor told me that where it comes to support, a company does everything it can do to ensure the "MacDonalds approach," meaning consistency. Everyone gets pickles, lettuce and tomatoes. And DVD-R/RW. But maybe not onions and DVD+R/RW.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.