Discs for the discerning

Steve Homer talks to the Independent's founding editor, Andreas Whittam Smith (left), about his leap into the world of multimedia

In a rather grand house in Notting Hill, west London, Andreas Whittam Smith, founder and former editor of the Independent, is hatching his next project. Surrounded by young, enthusiastic staff and ably abetted by his son, Ben, he is setting up what he hopes will be an influential multimedia venture. Judging by the first CD-Rom titles, The Art Of Singing, International Athletics and Wine, Spirits and Beer, due to launch on 14 March, his company, called Notting Hill, should break as much new ground as the Independent did when it launched in 1986.

A financial journalist for 25 years, Mr Whittam Smith says he enjoys business and loves explaining things to "the ordinary person, averagely educated with an enquiring mind". At the age of 57 he is launching another career because he is convinced a new medium is emerging.

"It is quite hard to define because it has two components at the moment - interactive multimedia on CD-Rom and online delivery," he says. "I was not certain it was really a new medium when I started thinking about Notting Hill but I am now. I have been a media person my whole life, so if I can participate in a new medium it is difficult to resist."

The first titles are innovative. The athletics disc has the largest athletics database ever put on to one CD-Rom, but the information is also presented beautifully and in different ways so that both real and armchair athletes will get something out of it.

The Art of Singing is probably the most extraordinary. Something of a cross between the atmospheric Myst strategy game and a "serious" singing reference work, the disc is an exploration of classical singing. Video clips of famous singers, musical puzzles, interactive demonstrations of vocal cords, musical mice and lots of straightforward singing make this a unique piece of work.

The first three titles are squarely aimed at an older educated audience, which is beginning to be recognised as potentially very profitable in the US. So far there is little software tilted at this market; Notting Hill could be coming along at just the right time.

It plans to concentrate on music, large database-based products (the sport and wine discs) and "popular" science (a disc on evolution created with Richard Dawkins comes out in May). Mr Whittam Smith feels these three areas are "uniquely suited to interactive multimedia". For example, he says, books are bad at explaining music. "I recently read a biography of Verdi which was extremely interesting but had not a word about his music. I think this is a bit of territory which interactive multimedia will take and not give back."

As for popular science, Whittam Smith plans discs that will allow users to do experiments in a computer. With databases, he says, you can look at information in a computer in ways that you can never do on paper. Future plans include a cooking disc with the Leith School of Food and Wine which promises to be every bit as unexpected as the current titles. And then there is the Internet.

"I am looking forward to having our Web site because I think it is just like a newspaper," he says. "It is a brand new editing opportunity."

Initially the site will be limited. "We would prefer to put up something very skeletal yet good, rather than fill it with stuff that is not very good, so you won't see much on to start with on 14 March, but the site is essential because it is the way we are going to update our CD-Roms."

As to the future, Mr Whittam Smith says, "I might put rather extraordinary things on my Web site." Given that the singing disc has "Mozart" and "Wagner" quizzing Dr Jonathan Miller, pretty much anything could happen.

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