Everyone wants a ride on this bandwagon

NETWORK OPINION The emergence of the multimedia industry has sparked a gold rush. By Andreas Whittam Smith

No other new industry has gone through its early stages in quite the same way that multimedia has. In the first place, we all seem unusually confident about the destination. This is the delivery of fully interactive multimedia on to a screen in our homes, a new medium that combines all the attributes of its predecessors - text, sound, moving image - and adds interactivity, a new ingredient. Yet it will be as easy to use as a book or the radio.

This certainty about the end result is unusual; most new developments are the result of pioneers feeling their way, not being very sure about where they are going but determinedly pressing on, sustained by more or less blind faith.

Second, nearly every company that could play a role in the development is doing so. New industries are generally developed by a few brave visionaries working alone. Not this time. Hardware manufacturers, software producers, publishers, intellectual property owners - anybody with a relevant skill is participating.

It is as if every engineering business in western Europe and the United States had had a go at motor vehicle manufacture during the 1880s, as soon as the basic principles of the internal combustion engine had been enunciated, already understanding that the age of the automobile was nigh.

Third, the players with the greatest faith are found in the financial markets. Any company involved in developing multimedia which chooses to seek a stock-market quotation seems to be guaranteed a rapturous reception. A history of continuous losses does not seem to matter. Investors will value the shares at perhaps five to eight times annual sales compared with a long-term average for most companies in most industries of one to two times. There is no shortage of capital.

The phenomenon combines a spirit of adventure on the part of consumers with the mania of the gold rush, so far as businesses are concerned. Consumers are in a forgiving mood.

As an electronic publisher, I am glad to say that consumers become attached to their multimedia PCs and enjoy playing CD-Roms, accessing the Internet, visiting Web sites, even though all multimedia products at present have technical shortcomings.

As far as CD-Roms go, we have not yet reached the stage of "plug in and play". With the Internet, the chances of accessing a chosen site quickly depends upon what time of the day it is. Once North American users get going during the day, the speed of the Net declines markedly.

But the users put up with this, as they did with jerky, soundless films in the early days of the cinema or with crackle and hiss when the first radio sets became available. They can sense what is authentic, work within the technical limits of the medium and have a lively expectation of continuous improvement.

I share this. When somebody told me the other day that an enthusiast had put up an excellent JS Bach site, I couldn't wait to visit it. More recently, I have read about famous football club sites on the Web; I shall visit these, too. It's a sort of adventure.

The gold rush is following the classic pattern. It is not the diggers themselves who make the first money, but the manufacturers of picks and shovels. In other words, the early beneficiaries are companies providing the infrastructure - making PCs and electronic components, providing Internet access and producing software, like the companies which devise the so- called "web crawlers" which steer you round the system.

The gold itself will be a way of profitably publishing interactive multimedia on CD-Rom or on the Internet so that a brand is created. The key words here are "profit" and "brand". Before this can happen, some problems need to be solved. Publishers will gradually learn to work with the grain of the new medium and come to see that a successful multimedia product is as different from a book or TV documentary as the cinema is from the theatre or television from radio.

This can only happen as the result of ceaseless experimentation; lots of talented young people working for new media companies are doing just this. Music and popular science are subjects that are particularly well suited to interactive multimedia treatment.

At the same time, the commercial infrastructure must improve. The sales channels for multimedia products are nothing like as smooth running or varied as they are for books or records. Moreover, prices for CD-Roms remain high; and on the Internet financial transactions are only just becoming simple and safe.

Because these preliminary developments are still being worked through, profits are thin, and some big companies have recently reported large losses. One or two, such as HarperCollins in the US, are even withdrawing altogether.

Nonetheless, so many companies are pushing along with such vigour that it may not be long before new brand leaders emerge, as powerful in multimedia as Warner Brothers in the cinema, or the BBC in radio and TV, or Penguin Books in publishing. This is the stage we have reached - waiting for brand leaders to emerge.

Andreas Whittam Smith was founder editor of the `Independent' and now runs the Notting Hill CD-Rom company.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

    Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

    £24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

    Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there