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Sony, Panasonic Redraw Battle Lines

Sony and Panasonic fired their opening salvos in the industry's most recent format battle at the NAB convention in Las Vegas earlier this year but it was at the International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam earlier this month that the battle was fully engaged.

Only Sony was ready to demonstrate its products. But both firms took other steps like naming their units and announcing deals with other manufacturers for supporting products and interoperability.

Sony officially named its product lineup XDCAM and also displayed the optical disc camera system interfacing nonlinear editing systems from Pinnacle, Quantel and Avid.

Panasonic meanwhile did some naming of its own, calling the recording system with solid-state-based memory "P2." Panasonic also is considering dubbing it an "ING" system, standing for "IT News Gathering" (Sony called XDCAM part of its "IT-based broadcast solutions").

The P2 series includes: the camera recorder, a mobile nonlinear editor, a deck recorder and cards. The P2 cards are compatible with standard PCMCIA slots and are expected to record 18 minutes of DVCPRO25 material on a single Type II PCMCIA card.

Panasonic also announced that Thomson and Avid will work with the company to ensure that their products are interoperable with the new recording technology. Panasonic European Press Manager Peter Weber says that the company is currently in talks to build similar relationships with other manufacturers.

Weber says it's important for the editing side of the equation to be fully sorted out. He is optimistic deals will get done easily because P2 is based on DVCPRO compression and open standards.

While Sony didn't have any similar announcements the on-booth displays of Avid, Quantel and Pinnacle pointed to the importance Sony places on similar deals. And Sony President of Broadcast and Production systems Pat Whittingham says Sony and Thomson are already in discussions to figure out how they can meet customer needs.

"We demonstrated at IBC that our optical disc format can interface to Avid, Quantel and Pinnacle nonlinear editing systems, so why not Thomson?" he said.

Sony's IBC presentation was a strong statement of progress by the company; Whittingham in fact says production units of the system are expected to ship by mid-November. Panasonic's system is not expected to ship until next the next NAB confab.

"Clearly we have a delivery advantage," says Whittingham. "We already have units in the hands of customers being tested, and for us the important thing is to make sure we can interface to third-party nonlinear editing systems."

On the surface, the battle appears to be one of optical disc vs. PCMCIA cards. But closer inspection of the Sony XDCam makes it clear that Sony is not inherently against the technology (also made clear by Sony's being a manufacturer of the cards). The camera currently has a single PCMCIA slot near the back of the camera and if Sony (or its customers) are so inclined, that single slot could become two or three.

"You can imagine the variety of uses for that card slot for things like wireless microphone technologies," says Whittingham. "There is a theoretical and practical approach to both optical and solid-state recording and it will be the customer who is going to make the determination from a workflow standpoint on which is better."

Panasonic has already changed the number of P2 cards its camera will hold. The NAB prototype only had three slots but Weber says the camera now has five, a move that will increase recording capacity.

At NAB would-be customers wondered about the ability of Sony's optical disc system to operate properly in extreme heat or cold, or if it was jostled. So Sony came to IBC with a video presentation that showed the camera recording in a variety of environments, from icy Scandinavia to a sandy desert. It also subjected the camera to skydiving and riding rapids to prove the quality of its damper mechanism.

Which format will capture the hearts and pocketbooks of broadcasters remains to be seen. Panasonic is getting more of the attention today but it will be interesting to see if the cost of storage on a per-Gigabyte basis that is 300 times more expensive than the Sony system is a roadblock.