CD-Rom Past and Future

by Bill Silverstein

Last year the prices of CD-Rom drives have dropped from $699 to $199. What does that mean to you? Today you can buy a triple speed drive for the same price of a single speed drive you would have paid last year. The total number of CD-Rom titles has exploded. The 5,283 titles available in 1992 grew to a total 8,149 titles in 1993. Where one would have to search extensively for Cd-Rom titles two years ago, one can find almost any title they need, or want, in any computer or electronics store. CD-Roms have moved into the mainstream.

CD-Rom drives for computers are the similar to the CD players for music. The CD-Rom drive cannot only read computer data, but also play music CDs. The mechanisms are very similar. The difference is that the CD-Rom drive for a computer is more precise and has the interface and control electronics that the music version lacks. Both use a laser to read the information from a plastic disk, a CD-Rom.

A single CD-Rom (Compact Disk Read Only Memory) can hold the equivalent of 350,000 typed pages (660mb). A standard, magnetic, diskette can only hold 2950 typed pages (2.88mb). Not only does a CD-Rom hold more than 118 times data than a diskette, but also is more reliable. Being an optical device, the CD-Rom is not affected by magnetic fields and temperature changes as a standard diskette is. CD-Roms have a life expectancy of over ten years.
This enormous capacity is not the only factor that has caused the tremendous growth in titles. Another factor is that a CD-Rom title can be published at a very low cost, approximately $5. The recent proliferation of CD-Rom titles can attributed to the massive drop in price over the last three years.

In 1988, Cd-Rom titles were limited to high end computer users, software developers, bulletin board operators, or fortune 500 corporations. This was due to the prices CD-Rom drives being in the $1000 range. Since there were few users of these drives, the titles were limited and expensive. Many of these titles were either complete public domain/shareware collections, development tool libraries, or expensive business databases that could cost over $2000 per year for a subscription. Other applications included imbedded mapping and navigation systems. There was little room for the 'casual' user. Now, in 1994 there are thousands of titles and at lower prices.

There are two major types of CD-Rom based software, "delivery software" and "content software." What is meant by "Delivery Software" is that the CD-Rom is a delivery medium. Using the vast amount of storage a software company can load their package with many demos, and bells and whistles as can fit. Then the user can load parts, or all the software from the CD-Rom onto a computer system. Major software vendors are using CD-Rom as a distribution medium given low cost of CD-Rom and the upward spiral of software size. There are now CD-Roms that contain demos of software packages along with a 'locked' version of the same software package. This will allow you to try the software, and if you like it, you can call with a credit card to get an unlock code for the software. It is too early to know if this technique will be successful.

Major software publishers such as IBM, Microsoft, Novell/WordPerfect, Borland, and Corel use CD-Rom a distribution medium. There are two reasons that these companies provide their software on CD-Rom. The first reason is that it costs less than $5.00 to produce a CD-Rom while it costs $20.00 to produce a fifteen-disk installation set. The second is that inserting one CD-Rom is much easier than to babysitting the computer while you insert fifteen disks, in sequence. For all but the oldest CD-Rom drives, the loading speed of a CD-Rom exceeds that of a floppy disk.

"Content Software" is a type where the CD-Rom replaces one or more books. Not only does the CD- Rom replaces the books, but also includes sophisticated retrieval software that allows you search for information by keyword and then quickly jump from one section to another by selecting key words or images of interest. The earliest book replacements were the standard reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. Now the book selection has exploded to include classic, traditional, fiction and nonfictional literature. Now most technical documents are available on CD- Rom.

You can now buy the entire collection of Cliff-Notes on CD-Rom. One of the most impressive text titles on CD-Rom is the ProPhone, the national telephone directory. For graphic titles, the most impressive is DeLorme's MapExpert. Multimedia titles are titles where you combine at least two of the following: text, graphics, sound, or video images.  ProPhone is a collection of almost 10,000 telephone books, which, they point out, that would use about 100 trees. The included software provides the ability to search by name, address, or telephone numbers. Most people use this to look up old friends and family. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had used this CD-Rom package to track down a drug dealer to make an arrest.

DeLorme's MapExpert contains all the road maps in the country. It is very easy to use and allows one to annotate the maps. One creative use is to include a map on an invitation. Another is to store copies of maps into a personal database, along with the address.

In January 1994, one could buy an unabridged dictionary on CD-Rom for $89.00 and the vendor would include the printed dictionary, "free." Encyclopedias are quite popular on CD-Rom. According to John Pocaro, manager of Microsoft's Consumer Products Division, "Encyclopedia Britannica has nothing to fear from their products." Pocaro explains that people still want to have their encyclopedias taking shelf space for the appearance or culture. He further explains that people like to have these books to "show off" and CD-Roms are not as impressive. In a recent discussion, after the 1993 sales were tabulated, with John Pocaro he told me that, "the encyclopedia publishers who did not get into multimedia are now regretting it." This is due to the 1993 Christmas season retail sales, being $120 million, far exceeding expectations.

Multimedia is one of the new buzzwords of the computer industry. Though there is much hype surrounding multimedia, only 20% of the current titles are classified as multimedia. Multimedia will proliferate in 1994 and even expand into virtual reality.

The next phase of CD-Rom technology is virtual reality. One title that Microsoft currently has is "Art Gallery." This CD-Rom is a guided tour through National Gallery of Art, in London. There is speculation that Microsoft will release, later this year, a walk though of the Louvre, possibly using virtual reality. The vast amount of data space available on a CD-Rom enables these types of applications, and others that will stagger the imagination soon to come.

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Copyright 1998 William Silverstein. All rights reserved.
Revised: April 29, 2004.