CD-Roms were supposed to be the vanguard of a multimedia revolution. Andrew Brown asks why, with a few exceptions, they seem to have floppedby Andrew Brown / June 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Cd-roms seem to be one of the futures that haven’t happened, along with personal jet packs, useful nuclear fission and the new world order. Five years ago, they were going to change the way we thought, render books obsolete and make fortunes for everyone who got into them. Quite a lot of the CD-Roms that were published then are still stranded on the shelves of my local bookshop. Many of the big media companies that piled into the market are now withdrawing. Hardly anyone is making a profit, except Dorling Kindersley, a London-based company; and even Dorling Kindersley has seen its share price drop by half this year. News International has just cut back sharply on its new media efforts; and Time Warner is expected to do the same.
So what went wrong? One explanation is that most of the unsold CD-Roms are rubbish. They do what videos do, only not as well, more expensively and using cranky equipment. This does not only apply to such titles as The Joy of Sex. Today, a good modern computer will display an impressive video in a window on the screen about a quarter the size of a television and costing four times as much. But two or three years ago, when the market was meant to take off, the video available was hideous: the picture looked as if it were constructed by shuffling Lego bricks in front of your eyes.
Few people knew about this because it was quite hard to buy a player for CD-Roms then, whereas nowadays it is virtually impossible to buy a computer without a CD-Rom drive. But this raises a fresh difficulty for the market: the CD-Rom drive will come with nine or ten CDs, and eight or nine of these will be very bad. It is as if every house you bought came with a free bookshelf, filled with the sort of books you can find at Ikea.
The second factor is the internet. Although it delivers stuff of a technically lower standard than CD-Roms, it is is cheaper, more interactive and boundless. No one is making money out of internet content yet, but the big companies which are pouring money in haven’t noticed this.
But the hype was not completely unjustified. There are three or four CD-Roms that no writer should be without. The most obvious is the Oxford English Dictionary, now reduced to…