The Death Of Proprietary Recording Media?

When we learned of GV's Infinity line, our first impression was that if it does everything that GV promises it'll do, it will change the industry. Then we heard the price... took a deep breath... and asked for the price again. Now we really wanted to see if it did everything that GV said it would do. Of course the big question is how will Infinity's openness, flexibility and cost affect a station's or facility's operations.
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Proprietary storage media: Be it videotape, optical disk or solid state memory, proprietary media has long been the bane of video professionals. You could be outside a Best Buy or Radio Shack, and yet be unable to record anything because you’d left your proprietary professional-grade storage media behind!

Well, if the ambitious folks at Grass Valley have their way, this hair-tearing conundrum could be a thing of the past. The reason: At IBC 2005, Grass Valley unveiled its new “Infinity Series” line of camcorders, VTR-like recorders/players and digital media drives that will feature internal Iomega REV PRO removable disk and Compact Flash solid state storage, plus the ability to connect to a variety of external recording media via USB 2.0 and FireWire ports.

“Our goal is nothing less than the death of proprietary recording media,” declares Jeff Rosica, Grass Valley’s VP of strategic marketing and business development. “We believe that our open format approach will also put an end to manufacturers dictating future format purchasing decisions for their customers and limiting the kind of recording choices that users have.”

In June, we told you how Rosica had approached Iomega with the idea of making REV a video storage medium for the professional video marketplace. At that time, Grass Valley introduced its Turbo iDDR with REV drive to the AV market and we speculated that REV was destined for more broadcast worthy integration. Now, that integration has come to fruition with the Infinity line and REV PRO disks.
As for video compression? Once again, variety rules: For SD, the Infinity line will offer DV25 and MPEG-2, and both MPEG-2 (I-frame and long GOP) and JPEG2000 for HD recording. “With JPEG2000 being selected as the standard for digital cinema video distribution, and the many unique benefits it brings to users including high-quality HD at an affordable cost, we think it’s an exciting compression option for users,” Rosica says. “That’s why we’re also including it.”

Architecture At press time, Grass Valley was keeping a fairly tight lid on the Infinity line’s details. However, two important facts were released about the new Infinity camcorder: First, it will be configured as a professional-grade, multi-format 2/3”, three-imager SD/HD camcorder. Second, this camcorder will sell for “around $20,000”, says Rosica. That price is without lens.
As for the decision to offer both Iomega REV PRO and Compact Flash recording on all Infinity video units?

“It is our response to the ongoing industry debate as to whether digital video should be recorded using spinning disk or solid state,” replies Rosica. “We ended the debate by offering both. This is because we really believe that there are benefits to both technologies for video acquisition: today spinning disks have superior storage capability, while solid state memory provides extremely quick data access.”
Meanwhile, the ability to add external storage of virtually all kinds—portable hard disks, memory sticks; even USB keys—puts an end to the Best Buy/Radio Shack conundrum described above.

No longer will videographers be stranded when they run out of professional-grade media: With an Infinity camcorder, they can run into the nearest consumer electronics store, grab some standard Iomega REV or Compact Flash cards, and go.

Of course there’s a tradeoff with the consumer media: While standard REV disks will allow both SD and HD recording, you’ll lose some enhanced REV PRO features such as multi-segment caching and consumer Compact Flash won’t offer the level of data storage capacity and data rates provided by professional media—HD video will quickly fill up a consumer-grade 512 MB Flash card—but when you’re a videographer caught in a bind, being able to use consumer media will be a godsend. It sure beats going back to the studio empty-handed.

Additional Benefits Beyond ending the tyranny of proprietary media, Infinity offers some other benefits for video acquisition and production.

For instance, when better forms of storage media hit the market, Infinity users will have the option of testing and adopting them as they see fit. This doesn’t just mean newer Compact Flash cards with more data storage space, but new kinds of media hitherto undreamt of: As long as they connect to standard USB/Firewire ports, these new media will potentially work with Infinity hardware. Contrast this to the restrictions of using a proprietary media system, especially videotape. With a proprietary format, the best you can hope for is for the media itself to be improved, but that’s about it.

Using an open approach to storage media allows users to decide what balance of price versus performance is acceptable. This also allows them to pit one technology vendor against another, in an effort to negotiate the best possible price. In contrast, with a proprietary system, the user has to pay for the storage capacities that the proprietary manufacturer chooses to offer; and pay whatever price the manufacturer sets.

Next, there’s the fact that Grass Valley’s approach leverages IT technology, rather than media specifically developed for broadcast use.

Since the IT market is exponentially larger than the broadcast market, the result is that millions of units are produced for IT; as opposed to thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) for broadcast. As any Economics 101 student will tell you, the more units produced, the less they cost per unit. Hence, by using off-the-shelf IT storage media, Grass Valley users will pay less for recording digital video due to economies of scale.

Then there’s maintenance: Does your TV station have a cash-strapped Engineering department? Then select a storage media that is virtually maintenance-free, like solid state. With an open approach, video executives can buy recording technology that fits into the overall budget reality of their operations; not just the camcorder that is cheapest this month.

Analysis In itself, the Infinity concept promises to shake up the broadcast and professional market. Granted, other manufacturers haven’t been dragging their heels on implementing IT technology for digital video recording; as proven by Panasonic’s P2 format and its use of removable solid state memory cards. However, it is fair to say that the proprietary concept still dogs the professional video sector, and that attempts by some manufacturers to force broadcasters to one proprietary format while forsaking all others remains a market reality.

What has yet to be seen is how widely broadcasters and videographers embrace Grass Valley’s Infinity concept. If they stampede towards open storage concepts, then other manufacturers will be forced to follow suit. The result could spell the end of proprietary recording media as we know it; or at least a substantial weakening of proprietary techhnology as a market force.

If this happens, then the camcorder manufacturers of the world would have to compete by emphasizing distinctive camera technologies in order to differentiate their products from the competition. This in itself isn’t new: Once VHS became the de facto consumer video standard, equipment manufacturers had to differentiate their VCRs in similar ways.

However, such a change would mark a substantial change in the way professional-grade equipment is marketed and end the proprietary pressure tactics that have dogged television since the replacement of 16mm film by videotape. If this happens—if video recording media becomes a commodity—then the entire industry wins.

The only downside is that tomorrow’s video equipment would have its design dictated to some degree by whatever IT recording media is popular. Specifically, should a manufacturer develop a camcorder that would benefit from media specifically designed for video, they would be unable to market this successfully due to competition from volume-priced IT media. This is the flip side of open standards: When no one controls the standard, you end up having to accept what the market will bear; as was proven by VHS’s triumph over Beta.

This said, Grass Valley’s Infinity series should satisfy those who are sick and tired of being controlled by their recording media. It will also make IT media manufacturers happy, by further opening the lucrative video market to their products.

James Careless covers the television industry. He can be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.