Special Report on Multimedia: Solutions still search for a problem: The battle to launch a new generation of multimedia products is starting in earnest, writes Steve Homer

WHILE Sony will not say how their Data Discman is doing, Columbia Tristar (Sony's movie and entertainment software arm) is confident enough to start advertising its software with full page ads in glossy magazines.

At the moment, people in Britain can only buy the rather chunky first generation player, but the company will launch three new models here within the next six weeks. The present player will play sound from a 3in disc (almost unobtainable in the UK) but not from Data Discman discs that incorporate sound. The new top range player will remedy this but will not provide the personal organiser functions available to the Japanese. At pounds 379.99 (pounds 30 more than the original player), it might be better to wait for a trip to Japan.

The other consumer player, which also supports audio, dispenses with the flip-open screen. Given that I managed to break the screen on my loaned machine, this model should be treated with care even if it costs 'only' pounds 279.99. The third machine has no display and is for use with a portable computer. But at pounds 299.99 it is more expensive than many full-function CD-ROM machines.

Other manufacturers, such as Panasonic, are coming into the market. As to software, there are now only 13 titles, with another four coming later this month. While some contain interesting information, they suffer from the Data Discman's limited interface. It is a fiddly thing to use.

Some otherwise useful titles are spoiled by their implementation. For example, the Time Out Guide to London has a fairly comprehensive restaurant listing and small maps of central London. Unfortunately, the technology cannot do the obvious: that is, show where the restaurant is on the map.

If the screen technology improves, the weight of the machine drops and the way you access information is refined, the Data Discman could be very useful. For the moment it is that classic electronics product - a solution looking for a problem.

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