You used to need a fat wallet and an inflated ego to be a publishing tycoon. Now all that's required is a computer, software and something to say. In our three-page special report, Cliff Joseph looks at the new age in communication
There was a time when the phrase "electronic publishing" had just one meaning. In the mid-1980s, magazine and newspaper publishers found that they could save money by using low-cost personal computers to create their page layouts, rather than paying outside printing companies to do it for them. This completely changed the economics of the publishing industry and led to the launch of many new magazines, as well as newspapers such as Eddie Shah's ill-fated Today, not to mention the one you are currently reading.

The world-wide desktop publishing industry is now worth billions of dollars, and has made the fortunes of companies such as Apple Computer and Adobe Systems, which specialise in publishing-oriented hardware and software. But although the design process was electronic, the actual medium that these magazines and newspapers were published on was good old-fashioned paper.

In the 1990s, electronic publishing has taken on a wider meaning. Now the publishing medium itself can be electronic. The Internet is the best- known example, with the "pages" of the World Wide Web forming a vast global library of information on every conceivable topic.

Also, CD-Rom has established itself as an important publishing medium, spawning entirely new categories such as "infotainment" and enhanced audio CDs.

Encyclopedias were among the first publications to make use of electronic media. The ability to store vast amounts of information on a CD-Rom and to search for specific subjects at high speed is an obvious benefit for the users of reference books. However, the first electronic CD-Rom titles were visually unappealing, containing millions of words of text without illustration.

Gradually, publishers began to produce more complex electronic publications that contained the same range of graphics and typefaces as their paper- based counterparts. The Independent and the London Evening Standard produced a CD-Rom containing back issues that, when viewed on a computer screen, exactly matched the page layout of the original issues.

There was even a short-lived flirtation with electronic novels, with titles such as Jurassic Park being put onto CD-Rom or floppy disk and enhanced - or ruined, depending on your point of view - with sound effects and pictures of dinosaurs. The publishers of these electronic books grandly announced "the death of the novel" and promised that we would soon be reading electronic books and newspapers on laptop computers as we travelled to work in the morning.

It didn't happen, of course. These publishers overlooked the fact that electronic books were not only more expensive than paper versions, but you also needed about pounds 1,000 worth of computer hardware to read them. You certainly couldn't curl up on the sofa with an electronic book in one hand and a cup of cocoa in the other. These early electronic publications simply didn't offer anything new that would justify their extra expense or make them clearly superior to paper.

The missing ingredient was multimedia. Paper-based documents are limited to static text and graphics, but multimedia allows you to add sound, animation and video, creating a much richer experience for the reader.

At first, the limited power of personal computers meant that they could only cope with very small, unimpressive video images. The reaction of most people to the first multimedia titles was a dismissive "So what?"

Every year from about 1989 onwards was proclaimed by computer industry leaders as "the year of multimedia", but the growth of multimedia was held back by the limitations of personal computers. There was some growth in the multimedia market in the early 1990s, with titles such as the Guinness Disc Of Records and Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia attracting a lot of attention, but it was only in 1995 that this new form of publishing really began to gain popularity.

The crucial factor has been the arrival of a new generation of personal computers. Intel's Pentium processor, and Apple's PowerPC Macintosh models finally had the power needed to cope with high-quality video images. Once this hurdle had been overcome, publishers were at last able to produce CD-Rom titles with content that justified their price.

"It happened about 18 months ago," says Sue Thexton of Macromedia, a company that specialises in multimedia publishing tools. "That's when the multimedia market finally took off, after years of people talking about it."

Around this time, traditional publishing companies such as Dorling Kindersley began to move into electronic publishing, with CD-Rom versions of many of its children's books. CD-Rom titles now represent almost a third of the company's output.

Microsoft was one of the first companies to put a big effort into CD- Rom publishing, producing titles such as the Encarta multimedia encyclopedia. It now publishes dozens of leisure and entertainment titles including World Atlas, Oz Clarke's Wine Guide, and the Cinemania film guide. Sales of these titles are estimated at around $50m, and are set to double in the next two years.

A recent variation on this theme is the "enhanced CD". This is an audio CD that also carries multimedia content ranging from extended sleeve notes to games and video clips.

It is no coincidence that the sudden surge of interest in the Internet also began about 18 months ago. The Internet is the ultimate electronic publishing medium, and all these different forms of electronic publishing have converged on the pages of the World Wide Web.

Web pages have to be designed and laid out just like the pages of any magazine or newspaper, but Web pages can also contain sound, animation and video. In addition to companies advertising their products and services, there are hundreds of newspapers and magazines that have electronic editions on the World Wide Web. There are even magazines - "webzines" - that exist only on the Web. Microsoft has recently launched a webzine called Slate, while Wired magazine has produced an offshoot called HotWired.

The unique feature of the World Wide Web, however, is that as well as allowing users to read what others have published it also allows them to publish their own pages to a global audience. This has given rise to hundreds of "indie" webzines, covering everything from music to bodybuilding, as well as the sometimes bizarre phenomenon of the personal "home page", on which individuals publish all sorts of weird and wonderful personal information.

This, of course, means that electronic publishing is no longer limited to professional publishing companies. Anyone with a computer can now become an electronic publisher, with the help of a variety of electronic publishing tools that are affordable enough even for the average home computer user.