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Feeding CDs to Your PC : A Technology That Had Long Wallowed Suddenly Explodes

April 17, 1993|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In the world of personal computers, CD-ROM devotees were like fans of the old Brooklyn Dodgers: their motto was always, "Wait till next year."

Though widely touted as the centerpiece of next-generation "multimedia" computers, the poor cousin of the music CD has been stymied by high prices, inadequate technology and standards battles from the day it was introduced in 1984.

Not anymore. Over the last six months, sales of CD-ROM drives have soared. Vendors who have spent millions peddling CD-ROM software to a virtually nonexistent market are taking heart.

And consumers can now look forward to an increasingly rich variety of CD-ROM programs that exploit the technology's strength: its ability to store the huge amounts of digital information needed for sound, video and high-quality graphics.

Unlike traditional computer programs, which are limited to text and simple graphics, CD-ROM programs can handle hundreds of color pictures, video clips, voices, music and massive amounts of text.

"We've finally reached the point where we have enough installed base and enough good software that customers are seeing the reasons to buy a CD-ROM drive," says Bob Goldberg, executive vice president of Software Toolworks in Novato, Calif., a major publisher of CD-ROM software. "The volume has increased dramatically."

Apple Computer marketing chief Ian Diery says nearly half the buyers of new Macintoshes are opting for CD-ROM drive on models that offer it. Market researchers say there will be as many CD-ROM drives sold this year as in all previous years combined.

There's more then a little irony in the timing of the CD-ROM boom. Cable television and telephone companies are just launching complex new networks that will ultimately deliver precisely the sort of programs now created for CD-ROM. CD-ROM may prove an interim technology, filling the gap for five or 10 years until the new multimedia information networks are established.

Moreover, the standards battles are hardly over: there are nearly a dozen variations of computer CDs, each designed for a different kind of computer or video game machine. And more are coming next year.

Still, it looks like the CD-ROM (for read only memory) has avoided the technological scrap-heap, even if it never quite rivals the floppy disk as a standard PC component. Prices have dropped under $500, from nearly $1,000 a year ago. New technology has made CD-ROM drives faster. And PC price wars have left potential buyers with more dollars for such extras.

Most of those buyers are home computer users. Thus, much of the new CD-ROM software consists of home reference tools--encyclopedias, for instance--as well as an imaginative variety of education and "edutainment" programs.

A CD-ROM encyclopedia--there are now three of them on the market, including a new one from industry powerhouse Microsoft Corp.--includes not only all the text and pictures of the print version, but sound effects and crude videos as well. The sales pitch is the same as it's always been for encyclopedias: parental guilt.

"It's the baby boom," says Steve Chadima, vice president of marketing at La Crescenta-based Knowledge Adventure, in explaining the multimedia PC boom. "There are now enough families with enough kids and enough money. Parents want alternatives to MTV and Nintendo."

While adults might be satisfied with a simple PC that can run a word-processing program, Chadima notes, kids demand more power, because they want to see slick graphics and videos. A Software Toolworks program called The Animals is a good example of the emerging genre: Children can roam through a zoo with the computer's mouse and click on different areas to see text descriptions, pictures and short videos of the animals and their habits.

There are, of course, some adult software products that can take good advantage of fancy visuals, a fact that hasn't escaped the notice of Penthouse magazine and others. Computer porn has long been a staple of adults-only on-line services.

Now, spurred by the success of a sex game called Virtual Valerie--which some in the industry say is the best-selling multimedia program around--Penthouse and others are rushing to bring out all manner of X-rated discs.

The rapid emergence of multimedia computer porn was a leading topic of conversation at a CD-ROM trade show in San Jose last week as the straight-laced computer industry debated whether PC magazines should carry ads for the products and whether distributors should sell them.

There's plenty of more mundane fare for adults as well. Reference books are popular--in part because they're easy to produce--and Newsweek is offering a quarterly CD-ROM that includes three months of magazines and additional stories and pictures from other sources.

Most in the industry agree that more creativity is needed to fully exploit the potential of the new medium. Says Jonathan Seybold, a Malibu-based new-media consultant: "We still need to move the creation away from the technologists and to the artists."

CD-ROMs Finally Catch On They've been around for years, but faster speeds and lower prices have helped sales of these computer devices explode.

Units Sales of CD-ROM drives have jumped 848% in the last four years. In millions sold: 1989: 158.0 1990: 240.0 1991: 936.0 1992: 1,498.0

Dollars Revenue from the sale of CD-ROM drives is up 364% from 1989. In millions of dollars: 1989: $140.3 1990: 178.8 1991: 581.3 1992: 651.6

CD-ROM Facts * CD-ROM is an acronym for compact disk, read-only memory. * Some disks contain an array of subjects from encyclopedias to adult entertainment. * Most buyers are home computer users. Source: Dataquest Inc.; Researched by C.A. WEDLAN / Los Angeles Times

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