The whole world in a spin

Steve Homer examines how the growing CD-Rom market will affect our lives
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I have seen a six-year-old clutch a mouse and stare, rapt, as a story unfolds under his control, and have known that in a year or so, he will return to that story, but to read it in French. I have seen a parent explain the concept of gravity while showing a five-year-old a "movie" of two galaxies colliding and have seen the child's face light up. I have marvelled as a mundane staff canteen turned into the supper scene from Don Giovanni and been engrossed by what can only be called an interactive documentary on the atom bomb builders. These are new things, and they are just the beginning. The increasing power of modern computers linked to the storage capacity of the CD-Rom means exciting, enlightening and educative experiences can be brought to millions.

And they will be. But right now, it is easy to be sceptical of claims that CD-Roms will lead to the second Enlightenment. Look at a list of the 20 top-selling discs. Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia is the only non-games title. Though there is nothing wrong with putting games on CD- Rom - and they will help boost the multimedia computer market as a whole - they have been driving the market to a degree some may find alarming. In 1994, 7 per cent of the overall leisure software market was CD-Rom based, according to the European Leisure Software Publishers Association. In 1995, this rose to 30 per cent and the figure is now 51 per cent. These figures include "edutainment" such as encyclopaedias, but the real numbers have come from the zap 'em, race 'em, skewer 'em brigade.

It will be a year or two before the non-games discs side reaches critical mass - but it will, simply because the choice of titles is beginning to explode. The number on the market grew by 50 per cent last year and will grow even faster this year, according to researchers TFPL. "Everyone is bringing out CD-Roms," says Gerry Berkley, responsible for CD-Rom buying at high street retailer HMV.

Most discs are good, Mr Berkley says, but not all. Too many are "just pictures and words," lacking either the content or the interface to make them accessible or worthwhile. Most seriously, they are too expensive.

If you got a multimedia computer at Christmas and are starting to get bored with your free software, you might be looking to buy your first CD-Rom. Prepare to be shocked. A disc typically costs between pounds 30 and pounds 50. Some encyclopaedias and other large titles can cost up to pounds 90. Given that you will not know if you like a title until you have played it for a while, this is quite an outlay. "A decent book or two, or a music CD will set you back about pounds 15. It they are not brilliant, you won't be too disappointed. But for an ordinary person to pay pounds 50, that is something else altogether," says Mr Berkley. The industry will suffer if publishers and retailers cannot get prices down, he believes.

They are, but slowly. Dorling Kindersley has some of the most popular family software titles. By investing heavily in the products when they were first released, they still look good and sell well today - and the company has been able to bring its prices down. For example, the popular Human Body disc sold at pounds 79 in September 1994, dropped to pounds 59 in March 1995 and to pounds 39 in January this year. Microsoft's Encarta dropped from around pounds 90 to pounds 50 this Christmas.

Another way to bypass the price problem is to rent. Blockbuster, the video rental company, is experimenting with this, although it is reportedly meeting resistance from some software publishers. There are potential physical problems - most discs are designed for occasional use, not the non-stop bashing a hired product will receive.

It is not just leisure titles that make CD-Rom invaluable. It is now the obvious way of delivering business software. It costs no more to press a CD-Rom which can store 650 megabytes than to manufacture and load up two floppy disks with less than three megabytes. That is a 200:1 performance advantage. With software products getting bigger, everyone is moving to distributing business productivity software on CD-Rom.

We are likely to see even more exciting products develop. In preparing these articles, I looked at dozens of CD-Roms - games, edutainment (educational entertainment) titles, entertainment titles, business applications and many that are hard to classify. What, for example, would you call a CD- Rom designed to reunite Bosnian and Serbian refugees? One thing was apparent with all the best titles. The CD-Rom, coupled with a powerful computer, can now do things that we have never been able to do. (In passing, it is worth noting that a powerful Macintosh can probably outstrip a PC in most multimedia applications.)

As parents and other adults begin to realise the incredible potential and sheer enjoyment of CD-Rom, the market will mature. Already in the US, adults without children and especially retired adults are buying home PCs. These sectors will help drive the market.

The next three or four years will see the most amazing transformation of what the computer can do in the home and the office. To quote Paul Tollet, head of Microsoft's consumer division in the UK: "If you think what is out on CD-Rom is good today, wait and see what is just around the corner."