Consumers and retailers must have standards
for everything from modems to Macintoshes - Oct 7 1997

As consumers, we want and need to have standards. With standards, for example, you know that the 60-watt light-bulb you buy in any store will fit in the sockets in your house. That same principle also benefits users of high-tech hardware. They know they can plug their printer into any PC's printer port and all they have to do is add software and click on print.

But manufacturers often don't like standards quite as much. "Imagine if our customers could only buy from us," they think, ignoring the argument that the result of agreed-upon standards is often an expanded market, with greater sales resulting in more business for all.

With this in mind, it's been a bad couple of weeks for users hoping for the sanity of agreed-upon standards.

* On the surface, DVD (originally Digital Video Disks, but now an acronym that doesn't stand for anything) would seem to be an irresistible technology, offering 4.7 gigabytes (billions of bytes) of data or more on a disk the same size as today's humble 650-megabyte CD-ROMs. Also, they promise the ability (in the next generation, anyway) to record huge quantities of data, not just read pre-manufactured disks.

The first generation of DVD, however, has been slow to catch on. $700 players are sitting on store shelves owing, at least in part, to a scarcity of feature films to play on them. The computer version has suffered from a lack of operating system support and a lack of products to use with them. Analysts Freeman Associates have lowered their forecasted DVD-ROM sales for 1997 from an estimated three million to 500,000 units, while U.S. vendors of home-electronics units are reportedly dropping prices by as much as half to try and move stock out the door.

To make matters worse, manufacturers of the next-generation, recordable DVD-RAM have proposed four competing standards. Different, incompatible models have been announced, several of which will not only be unusable on competitors' DVD-RAM models, but will also be unreadable on the current generation of DVD players. The resulting chaos has caused several major hardware manufacturers to delay plans to make DVD available with their computers and will chill consumer demand for the Christmas season.

* Purchasers of new modems have had to contend with two competing standards for most of the past year. 56K modems featuring either 3Com/US Robotics' x2 technology or the K56-Flex standard used by almost everybody else can only connect at full speed to other modems using the same format.

There had been hope that the International Telecommunications Union would be able to set a standard that would allow users to make the modems fully compatible. But now an agreement on standards in the near future seems increasingly unlikely. Instead, we're seeing threats of lawsuits and demands for stiff licensing fees, with resulting animosity between companies.

Despite the squabbling, 56K modem sales are strong. Users can purchase a new modem, and get full use of it -- as long as they're sure that they purchase the same technology featured by their Internet Service Provider.

* Perhaps the biggest kerfuffle over proprietary standards has taken place between Apple and the companies that it had licensed to build clones of its Macintosh computers. Apple had hoped to expand the Mac market, imagining that clone builders would target new customers. Instead, Apple now feels the big cloners (Power Computing, Motorola and Taiwan's Umax) were simply bidding for a piece of the traditional Mac market.

There's some justice in those complaints, but the 500,000 clone machines sold from 1995 to today account for only a fraction of the business Apple managed to lose while watching its market share drop from 12 per cent then to four per cent now.

Under interim-CEO Steve Jobs' direction, Apple has been putting the squeeze on the clone manufacturers. In the short term, users may be able to buy Power and Motorola StarMax models at fire-sale prices, but the long term may find Macintosh an increasingly isolated, minority taste.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan