IT'S getting to be the end of the reel for the videocassette tape.
A year from now, a new device should start popping up on video-store shelves that will likely replace it, analysts say. Instead of tape, it will be a disc. Instead of fitting only a single device, it will be usable with either a television set or a computer. Instead of traditional video quality, it will be high-quality digital video and sound.
''Once they play movies with 100-times better video and surround-sound, people are just going to love this,'' says Ray Freeman, president of Freeman Associates, a Santa Barbara, Calif., consulting firm.
The new device is called digital videodisc (DVD) or multimedia compact disc. It looks much like the optical discs called CD-ROMs now popular for personal computers. In fact, the DVD promises to hold more data and run faster than today's CD-ROM.
''There will be an eight-times [faster] CD-ROM next year,'' promises Jan Oosterveld, who heads the DVD effort at Philips NV in the Netherlands. The disc will be capable of holding as much information as 10 of today's average-sized personal computers.
But buyers may not flock to the new disc players overnight. Analysts generally suggest the machines won't be a hit unless they cost $500 or less. Some manufacturers talk about initial prices of $800 or even $900 apiece. But industry officials expect sales to pick up quickly, pushing costs down.
The DVD might have arrived earlier, except that Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp. have led separate efforts to produce it. The prospect of separate discs battling in the marketplace scared Hollywood and computer software firms from supporting either standard. So the groups reached a compromise in September.
When rumors surfaced earlier this month that the compromise might not hold, the companies put on a joint press conference at last week's COMDEX computer show in Las Vegas. ''There's no divergence between us,'' a consortium spokesman said.
But the technical standards have yet to be written. And though the companies promise to have them finalized by next month, the standards could mean millions of dollars to companies that hold the patents involved. So some participants see the December deadline slipping.
''I'm more confident today'' that a standard will emerge, says Richard Kraft, president of Matsushita Electric Corporation of America, the Secaucus, N.J., company that markets Panasonic, Technics, and Quasar consumer-electronics products. ''But there's still a D-Day and that D-Day is in mid-December to early in the first quarter.''
The lack of standards has not kept companies from forging ahead. Toshiba has developed a prototype DVD player. Matsushita showed prototypes of DVD players and discs at COMDEX. In one year, the company hopes to sell a DVD player for computers and TV sets. The year after that, Panasonic plans to offer a next-generation DVD player that would allow users to record data as well as play it - an important feature for people who like to tape their favorite TV shows.
Eventually, the standard could be extended to include audio CDs and computer-game cartridges. Having the same technology spread over so many devices promises to help drive down manufacturing costs.
With CD-ROM players, ''it has taken almost 12 years to get up to 24 million'' units in sales, says Teruaki Aoki, executive vice president of Sony's consumer audiovisual unit. With DVD players, ''it won't take 10 years,'' he predicts.