K-12 decision makers generally have taken a wait-and-see attitude about digital video discs (DVD), the technology expected to replace CD-ROM. But a decision by the nation’s leading education software company might hasten the day when schools begin the wholesale transition to the new format.

The Learning Company (TLC) unveiled a clutch of new software titles at May’s Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta, and three of the most popular titles now are on DVDs. DVD is a relatively new technology with a huge storage capacity and high-quality video output. Industry insiders are saying that TLC’s lead in developing DVD software for the education market could push DVD technology into mainstream acceptance.

“It’s just a matter of time before others follow suit,” said David Obelcz, a software solutions technologist for Compaq Computer.

The DVD-ROM titles that TLC is debuting in Atlanta are “The Complete National Geographic: 109 Years of National Geographic Magazine,” “Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia 1999,” and “The Oregon Trail, 3rd Edition.

DVD defined

DVD stands for “digital video disc” or “digital versatile disc,” depending on whom you ask. It’s a new type of CD-ROM that holds anywhere from 4.7 gigabytes (GB) of memory to 17 GB–up to 26 times the data contained on a single CD.

Toshiba pioneered the DVD standard two years ago to replace laser discs in the consumer entertainment industry. DVD uses a video compression standard called MPEG-2 to compress video data. A full-length feature film (up to 133 minutes) can fit onto a single-sided disc. MPEG-2 allows for full-screen, high-resolution video of superior quality.

DVD drives have begun to appear in many desktop and portable models from each of the major computer vendors as an optional upgrade from CD-ROM, and some manufacturers even offer it as the standard drive in their higher-end models. But until now, the hardware has been well ahead of the software in terms of development.

Obelcz calls this the “rubber band effect.” “Generally, there’s a two-year period with any new technology before the applications can catch up to it,” Obelcz said. “We’re about a year into that period with DVD.”

The vast majority of DVD software titles are still movies or other entertainment-oriented titles. “Right now, no one has a good sense of what exactly can be done with DVD,” said David Nichols, manager of mobile and consumer options for IBM.

Clearly, though, DVD’s huge storage capacity is an advantage over CD-ROM. TLC’s “The Complete National Geographic,” for example, fits every article of every issue of National Geographic Magazine from 1888 through 1997 onto four DVDs.

But software developers also are starting to realize the enormous potential for creating multimedia applications for schools with DVD. In addition to TLC’s titles, Community Network Systems (CNS) is releasing a multimedia version of the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia on DVD.

“DVD holds incredible potential for the education market,” said Matthew Barlow, CNS’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “The amount of storage available on DVD and the quality of its video means that any reference-based product can have a much richer multimedia capability–which also means it can demonstrate concepts more effectively.”

DVD forecast

So, should you invest in a DVD-drive if you’re buying new computers for your schools? Probably–especially if you want to protect your investment from obsolescence in a few years.

International Data Corporation (IDC) and other industry trackers are predicting that DVDs will replace CD-ROMs as the industry standard by the year 2000–much as CD-ROMs have replaced floppy disks. “There’s a real critical mass coming, and it’s happening very soon,” predicts Obelcz.

You can expect to pay a few hundred dollars extra for a DVD drive as an installed option. Apple Computer, for example, offers DVD-drive upgrades in its desktop machines for $130 and in its PowerBook notebook computers for $200, but you have to buy a special MPEG-2 decoder card if you want to watch MPEG-2 encoded video. Elecede Technologies (E4) just released a Mac DVD playback card that will ship June 30 and retail for about $250.

Many vendors include their own MPEG-2 decoder cards when you buy a DVD-enabled computer. Gateway offers DVD drives on its computers for around $200 with a decoder card included. Dell just started shipping its Inspiron line of notebooks with DVD drives and decoder cards for an extra $299, and DVD drives will be an option on its Latitude line this fall. Dell’s Dimension line of desktops have included DVD drives as an option for a few months.

The fact that few software applications exist yet on DVD is still a consideration. But one advantage of buying computers with DVD drives is that they’re backwards-compatible with CD-ROMs, meaning your DVD drive can still read and play CD-ROMs. A caveat: If you’re going to buy a DVD-enabled machine, make sure it has a “phase 2” DVD drive (the phase 1 drives cannot read discs that have been digitally remastered on CD-R drives).

Todd Nelson, portables manager for Dell’s education division, warns that it might still be a year before you see a wide range of education titles on DVD. But Nelson sees one potential application for DVD right now in foreign language classes–DVD movie discs can be programmed in up to eight different languages, complete with subtitles.

“You wouldn’t even have to buy DVD drives for every machine–you could buy a portable computer with a DVD drive and use it like a VCR,” Nelson said.

Obelcz admits the short-term value of DVD for education is still elusive–but it was for CD-ROMs, too, he says. “Schools are caught in an endless balancing act,” Obelcz pointed out. “On the one hand, they don’t want the technology they buy to be obsolete, but on the other hand, they’re often constrained by tight budgets. I’d say it’s worth at least considering a DVD drive as an investment in the future.”

IBM
http://www.ibm.com

The Learning Company
http://www.learningco.com

Compaq Computer
http://www.compaq.com

Toshiba http://www.toshiba.com

Community Network Systems
http://www.cnsltd.com

International Data Corporation
http://www.idclink.com

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com

Gateway
http://www.gateway.com

Dell Computer
http://www.dell.com