Content in search of a form

Steve Homer sees an industry having difficulty keeping up with change at Milia
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The Independent Culture
Cannes has a film festival, numerous TV markets and a major music shindig, and for the past five years it has also hosted Milia - its "multimedia content" event. It is probably the world's most glamorous "computing" show.

But this year, despite beautiful weather, Milia seemed to be under a cloud. The multimedia content industry is heading into a premature, and rather exhausted, middle age.

A huge number of Milia's most enthusiastic former exhibitors no longer exist. They have been swallowed up by aggressive competitors, or have simply lost so much money that they have gone to CD-Rom heaven. Others, like Microsoft, make so much money elsewhere that they cannot be bothered to support this difficult industry. The problem is not just that of content providers fighting each other; they are also competing against a much more powerful force - change.

When Milia started in 1994, it was a book and CD-Rom show; then it became just a CD-Rom show; then online services pushed their way into the picture; then the Internet in all its flavours arrived. Now digital television is coming to the party. This constant change of delivery technologies has been a killer for people developing titles. And things are not going to get any better.

"The publishing business, for the rest of the Nineties and into the next century, is going to be very different from the publishing market we know today," says Julie Schwerin, chairman and chief executive of the analysts InfoTech Inc.

One big change coming is DVD-Rom. It finally made an appearance this Milia, but there was little real software on show. Including demo discs, there are only around 50 titles available worldwide, despite the fact that DVD-Rom drives have been on sale for more than a year. But with drive prices crashing, by the end of this year DVD-Rom drives will be at almost CD-Rom prices, and sales are expected to rocket. And DVD drives are extremely versatile - they can play new and exciting DVD-Rom multimedia titles, CD-Roms and audio CDs, and they can also play DVD videos.

Intel showed a fascinating solution to a DVD video problem at Milia. DVD video is highly compressed, but DVD-Rom drives do not include the electronics needed to decompress the data, so you normally have to buy an extra PC card to do the job. However, with a powerful enough computer, it is possible to decompress the data in software. Using a Pentium II 333 MHz machine running a Zoran decompressor, Intel showed clips of Goldeneye, The Bodyguard and other films, demonstrating that the picture quality was as good as, if not better than, a dedicated DVD player on a television set. With new home PCs expected to be 300MHz machines and decompression software getting better all the time, it could be movies all round by next Christmas.

But disk-based systems are not getting things all their own way. The Internet will be pouring into our homes and offices in new and super-fast ways over the next few years. The French pay-TV giant Canal+ will shortly be launching a satellite Internet access system. This will allow users to pull down Web data via their ordinary satellite TV dishes more than 10 times faster than the fastest modem available today.

As a demo, Canal+ showed a service it is developing that will make British football fans green with envy. Each Saturday, Canal+ will store every first division goal in video format on the Web. A quick click, and there is the goal everyone is talking about. The 30-second clip takes only 30 seconds to download via satellite; by conventional modem it could take as long as 20 minutes.

However, satellite systems won't have it all their own way. There was much talk at the show of cable modems and the new high-speed DSL Light modems that will be able to send data as fast as satellite.

All this change is taking its toll on the industry. Three years ago mainstream investors were falling over themselves to finance new CD-Rom projects, but this year they were staying well away. Nevertheless, deals aplenty were being done in the time-honoured Cannes tradition - by way of personal introduction between people who really understand the business.