CyberLink’s vision for optical media

powerdvd_boxshot.jpgThe world of video has changed almost completely over the last decade. No longer are we chained to the antiquated video player and its poor playback, tape-chewing ways. The DVD revolution has not only transformed the quality of movies but has made it possible to watch films conveniently from the comfort of your PC.The price of hardware DVD players is falling all the time and software behemoths such as Microsoft and Apple are finally waking up to the potential of the digital media industry and emptying their bulging wallets into producing their own solutions.

Add this to the fact that fixed memory capacity and bandwidth sizes are expanding by the second and you start to wonder how relative minnows like CyberLink, developer of the vastly popular PowerDVD, expect to stay in the game. We caught up with the company’s founder and industry guru, Dr Jau Huang to find out how.

When was the first version of PowerDVD launched and who was involved in its creation?

powerdvd_huang.jpgPowerDVD was first launched in 1998. It was the triumph of a small team of eight engineers – including myself – who had a passion to create the best DVD decoder in the world. Of course, in some way we have to thank our first lot of users – mainly tech-savvy early adopters who had actually heard of MPEG-2! Without their enthusiasm for the product, PowerDVD would never have got off the ground.

What did the initial version of PowerDVD look like?

It was a classic design, very practical, with features that were easy to access. The key was our original GUI concept: an interface that easily crossed language barriers; that required no learning curve; and was yet powerful and functional. While we’ve added features that have enhanced the DVD experience, our basic GUI design philosophy hasn’t fundamentally changed in all these years.

Were you happy with the first release?

We were like parents with their first-born child. It’s hard to imagine, but DVDs hadn’t even become a household name. However, within the early-adopter market, we had delivered a product that made playing DVDs on the PC possible. We also provided a trial version that could be downloaded via the ’World Wide Web’ and it seemed like everyone wanted to get a copy. It was a great time, and proudly, PowerDVD has been a strong and robust product ever since.

What sort of challenges have you faced as PowerDVD has become more popular and the technology has changed?

There are many ways to look at challenges. From the user perspective, we’ve strived to improve the quality of the DVD movie experience with every new release. This includes both image quality – which varies across playback devices – and audio format support, as well as fun new features. From a design perspective, the challenge is to maintain the essential ease-of-use we established earlier on, while adding exciting functionality that offers an even better DVD experience. Then there are the challenges in the market: these days, every programmer in the world believes they can make a better DVD player.

Could you give us a brief overview of the development process: from coming up with the idea for a piece of software to its final release?

Our product development process starts with input collected from the market. We begin by drafting our “MRD” (market requirement document) together with a new features proposal. This is then followed with a technical feasibility study, a new UI design, a testing plan, and testing cases. We get a lot of input from all avenues: we check out what people are saying online; we listen to our business partners; we also check out what other companies are doing too. We then try to deliver something that other people don’t have: for PowerDVD it is the quality of the movie experience.

What future developments can you tell us about for the next version of PowerDVD, and the other products within the CyberLink line?

Our new PowerDVD 7 is about personalizing the DVD experience even more. We’ve got great features for notebook users, of course the best audio format support, and cool new looks for our interface. With PowerDVD 7 we’ll have special versions that support high-definition Blu-ray and HD DVD video playback, as the drives and Hollywood titles come to the market. Blank Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD media will eventually allow users to store and play their own high-definition video content. PowerDVD 7 will be able to play these kinds of personalized high-definition video discs as well.

How has the dynamic of the DVD software market changed since the first release of PowerDVD, and how have user’s needs changed?

When we first released PowerDVD back in 1998, there were a lot of skeptics: Who wants to watch DVD movies on a PC? Now it has become commonly accepted that people do watch movies on a PC, especially when they are traveling.

From CyberLink’s perspective PowerDVD has been in synch with four main trends within the market. The first relates to the DVD medium itself. This includes the distribution of Hollywood movies on DVD, which offered a major improvement in the audio and video quality of enjoying movies at home. The availability of blank DVD media for storing home videos has also been a part of this trend.

The second involves the hardware: a shift from desktop computers to notebooks, which in many cases created a portable entertainment market, although it delivered a duller screen. CyberLink’s response was to develop Eagle Vision (CLEV) technology to solve the problem of poor saturation and brightness on LCDs.Another hardware issue emerged with the growth in widescreen monitors, both external TVs and notebook LCDs. This shift to new screen ratios created a desire to play 4:3 video content in a way that would maximize use of the hardware. CyberLink solved this with the natural image stretching technology CyberLink Pano Vision (CLPV).

The final trend was more about usability – though still tightly linked to the trends in hardware – and that is the PC as an entertainment device, no longer just a productivity tool. PowerDVD added value to the PC by letting users play all kinds of discs, media files, and audio formats. We delivered a range of headphone and speaker technologies, including CyberLink Multi-Environment Impression (CLMEI) and CyberLink Headphone (CLHP) to augment the increasingly sophisticated audio hardware out there in people’s homes.

What we are now seeing is the culmination of these major trends, making the notebook an extremely versatile device. People find that watching DVDs on their notebook is a very good way to kill time. And they can do it wherever they are. With that in mind, achieving lower power consumption for playback on notebooks has become a key concern, and CyberLink responded to this demand in PowerDVD 6. Other than watching DVDs on the go, there are also more and more people connecting their PCs to a big TV screen. These users also have a good home stereo unit and can use PowerDVD and their PC to build a low-cost home entertainment center. In this usage model, high-quality video and multi-channel audio output are a must.

We’re getting to the stage now where it’s becoming cheaper to buy a hardware DVD player than it is to purchase a copy of PowerDVD. What’s the company’s strategy regarding software pricing and do you think many users get put off by the price?

Most people who have PowerDVD receive it for free on the PC they buy – so I don’t see price as a major issue. It powers their ability to watch movies and play DVDs. The key issue is what else our customers want to do with their PC.

For a lot of people now, including many business people, more and more time is spent traveling. Notebooks have become the portable office. They have also become the portable entertainment center. For these people, their notebooks are always with them, but they won’t carry a separate DVD player. So there are many occasions when PowerDVD on someone’s notebook is a far better solution than a hardware DVD player – especially whenever they are away from home.

What can you tell us about the impact that developments in digital rights management will have on the DVD market?

As you probably know, there are systems already in place for the protection of content, so it is important for the PC and software industries to take piracy and content protection seriously. The point for the software industry is whether they are prepared to invest the R&D in understanding the complexity of the issue and then implementing the right protocols to fit the various world-wide regulations. This applies to playback software developers just as much as burning or authoring software developers.

For the consumer, they need to understand that DRM systems are being implemented, and that various controls do permit various rights. They need to know if their software respects DRM, otherwise they won’t be able to play, create, or burn in the way that they want.

Since CyberLink was one of the pioneers in the idea of using your computer to watch movies what do you think of the latest push by the mega-corps to fully integrate the computer and the living room and how does this affect your strategy?

Everyone is talking about the digital home, including CyberLink. For us it is about the best audio and video quality, which happens to be digital. It is also about sharing content with other devices, accessing TV over the Internet, recording and watching high-definition content. It includes the complex issue of digital rights management too. We’re not fazed by other companies. We provide extra value to what they are offering. And they are playing an important part in educating the community about the excitement of the digital home; that can only benefit everyone.

Some analysts (Bill Gates for one) are predicting the death of optical media within the next few years. How can formats such as DVD, Blu-Ray and HDD survive in the future, given the trend towards purely digital media?

I see disc formats being around for some time to come. Whether it is the extremely successful DVD, or next-generation disc formats such as BD and HD DVD, discs still offer a lot of benefits to people. One, the medium is very tangible; it allows people to create, distribute and collect. Two, storage just keeps increasing–which is now extremely important for the next wave of high-definition content. Three, until high-quality movies can be downloaded instantly, it is still an excellent distribution method. Yes, there is a trend towards everything going digital and online–especially for a complete solution such as music and music players. But storing and distributing movies and photos, whether they are from Hollywood studios or a home video collection, can be done relatively easily and cost-effectively via disc.

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