Revolution falters as CD-Roms fail to excite the young

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The Independent Online
CD-Rom, the edutainment medium for the new millennium, appears to be losing its lustre. Dorling Kindersley, a one-time trailblazer, yesterday announced that it was shedding jobs in its multimedia division. Cathy Newman suggests that CD-Rom publishers improve their output.

In theory the CD-Rom is the ideal entertainment medium: words, pictures, sound, animation, film clips and graphics. All on a little silver disc that you slip into your computer. Small wonder then that information technology (IT) and publishing companies scrambled in the early Nineties to get into what many saw as a sales goldmine.

But, increasingly it seems that they were pursuing fool's gold. Dorling Kindersley's announcement yesterday that it was shedding 85 jobs in its multimedia division is only the latest in a series of blows to hit CD- Rom publishers.

News Multimedia, part of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire, scaled down CD-Rom production at the beginning of the year. The big United States publisher McGraw-Hill was forced to rethink its multimedia operations last summer because it was struggling to get shelf space in stores for its entertainment compact discs.

Matthew Richards, editor of PC Guide, explains: "Multimedia hasn't lived up to the expectations publishers had for it. Two to three years ago it was seen as the holy grail. Sales just haven't backed that up at all."

The reasons for this seem simple: the best CD-Roms, say the top 10 per cent, are good. But there are not enough of them. And there are an awful lot of lacklustre discs. This in turn stems from book publishers' assumption that all they had to do was transcribe their books onto a disc. The results were boring to look at and difficult to use. As consumers increasingly expected their computers to offer more and better sound and pictures, these substandard offerings fell by the wayside. Simply putting a book on a screen, as many did, was just not good enough.

Some CD-Rom publishers have also got it badly wrong in assuming that people would buy weird and wonderful titles, few of which appeal to the mainstream consumer. Roland Waddilove, editor of PC Home, estimates that only around the top 10 per cent of CD-Roms - titles such as Microsoft's lush multimedia encyclopedia, Encarta - make any money. Some companies have sold fewer than 100 of their more obscure offerings. Little wonder, he says, that they are now weeding out unsuccessful titles: "I think we'll see companies focusing on their top-selling products and forgetting the rest," Mr Waddilove said.

Another reason why customers have left CD-Roms gathering dust on the shelf is that they have begun to get their first - and often cheaper - taste of true interactivity via the Internet.

The world-wide web, Mr Richards believes, is far more appealing to new- media enthusiasts than many CD-Roms on the market. "People are much happier clicking onto the Internet rather than spending between pounds 30 and pounds 40 on a CD-Rom," he added.

Despite the general disappointment, some publishers, such as Europress - which makes a range of edutainment discs called Fun School - have managed to make a go of it. Its CD-Rom, International Rally Championship, is rubbing shoulders with the best selling games on disc.

So, despite the bandwagon having come to a jarring halt several times, aficionados believe that new media still has something going for it. As Mr Richards explains: "You can do things with CD-Roms you just can't do with books."

Dorling Kindersley is putting a brave face on yesterday's job cuts. Rod Hare, group managing director of Dorling, takes heart from upbeat forecasts for British CD-Rom sales, which are predicted to grow from 43 million this year to 60 million next year. He is confident that Dorling will do well out of the CD-Rom market, not least because of the firm's direct selling operation, where sales staff demonstrate discs in potential buyers' homes.

The main problem, from the manufacturer's if not the customer's point of view, is that CD-Roms are now selling for less than they used to. "Retail prices have come down so revenue generated is less than we'd like it to be," he said.