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HOME ENTERTAINMENT : Laser-Disc Format Still Alive--For Now

June 16, 1995|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is the laser disc dying?

No, not yet, but the outlook isn't rosy. Even some people who rent and sell them think it's a foregone conclusion that the format will be history in a few years. A laser disc is a 12-inch disc that offers a high-resolution picture and super sound.

What's poised to lay laser disc to rest is the digital video disc (DVD), a format that is due to debut next year. This disc is about the size of an audio CD and will be principally marketed as a means for playing back movies. Like a laser disc, it's not recordable.

DVD, industry observers predict, may replace the videotape too, but not until the next century. It's the less firmly entrenched laser-disc format that's in immediate danger.

In audio-visual terms, DVD offers all that laser disc offers and more--a huge capacity for audio and data storage. But where DVD will have its biggest edge is in price: It supposedly will cost just a little more than a music CD--under $20. Most laser discs are in the $35-$40 range.

The laser-disc format, in nearly 2 million U.S. homes, has never caught on with the masses--mainly because laser discs aren't recordable, are too expensive and aren't available for rental in most outlets. Also, some movies aren't available on laser until weeks after they've been out on video. So competing with the VCR, which is also recordable and offers inexpensive software, has been futile.

Not everyone is willing to pronounce laser disc dead. Mike Fidler, senior vice president of new technology for Pioneer Corp., which manufactures laser-disc players, said there's still life in the format.

"It will be viable for years to come--probably three to five," said Fidler, admitting he's heard some of the doom-and-gloom chatter from people in the laser-disc business. "People are acting like laser disc will go down the drain immediately. That's just not true. This year there's been growth in both hardware and in software, where sales are up over 25%.

"That's just in this country. It's growing worldwide too, where it's in over 10 million homes. These people aren't going to just dump their machines. And they're going to need software. DVD will take time to catch on. Meanwhile, laser disc will do OK. It will be able to coexist for a while with DVD."

But then, he conceded, DVD has bigger mass-market potential, and it will eventually overtake laser disc. "Over a course of time, DVD will have a bigger impact on the market," Fidler said. "Overall it offers better picture quality--more detail and less noise."

Do you get the feeling Fidler isn't that sorry about the impending laser-disc phaseout?

That's because Pioneer already has one foot in the DVD market, aligning with the Time Warner/Toshiba faction that has developed one of the two versions of the format. "We're actively developing technology for DVD," Fidler said.

Though the format war between Time Warner/Toshiba and Sony/Philips hasn't been resolved, the Time Warner side has announced it will begin pressing its version of DVD in September.

Though everyone would like to see just one version of DVD on the market, Fidler said it wouldn't surprise him if the factions didn't resolve their differences and two DVDs hit the market next year--much like the Beta/VHS war early in the VCR's history.

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