Andrew Brown for Prospect

Andrew Brown for Prospect.

CD-ROMs seem to be one of the futures that havenít 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/stationers. They have been there for at least two years and will presumably remain there until given away. Many of the big media companies that piled into the market are now withdrawing. Hardly anyone is making a profit, except Dorling Kindersley, an Oxford-based firm allied with Microsoft; and even Dorling Kindersley has seen its share price cut in half this year after warning that its profits would be halved to £10m. 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, and a very important factor, is that most of the unsold CD-roms are rubbish. They do what videos do, only worse, more expensively, and using cranky equipment. This does not just apply to such titles as the Joy of Sex. Nowadays, an expensive modern computer will display reasonably impressive video in a window on the screen about a quarter the size of a TV and costing four times as much. But two or three years go, 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 discovered 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 none 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 in IKEA. Few people would visit a bookshop if that were all they knew of literature. Few people do.

The second factor is the Internet, which delivers stuff of a technically much worse standard than a CD-rom. But it is is cheaper, more interactive, and apparently boundless. No one is making money out of Internet content yet, but the big companies who are pouring money in havenít noticed this.

Yet 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 around £250. This is not just a great deal cheaper than the 20 volume edition and a great deal more weildy than the one-volume miniaturised edition that book clubs give away. It is better than both. You can find things with it that are impossible to discover in the full version. This is fun if you simply want to know all the words from Aztec in English, and useful if you want to flatter writers. "Did you know you are quoted five times in the OED, once for illustrating the use of Ďfuckí?" is a question to soften the heart of the most suspicious interview subject. It is not often you can bring people news of their own immortality.

Unhappily for the industry, the OED achieves all this without any multimedia aspect at all. There is no video; there are no sounds; and even the interface is irritatingly old-fashioned.

A similar problem afflicts encyclopaedias. The one worth having remains Britannica, which you canít afford on CD-rom any more than you can afford the paper version.

The useful CD-rom that comes with your computer will be the one that has all the software on it. This distribution of ordinary boring necessary software is the real motor behind the appearance of CD-rom drives. Microsoft Windows 95, if you buy it on floppy disk, comes on 19 of them, and that is without many of the goodies that come on the CD-rom. That is the real reason why computers come with a CD-rom drive: even portables, where it adds greatly to the bulk and power consumption.

Andreas Whittam Smith, the founding editor of the Independent, set up Notting Hill CD-roms after he was ousted from the paper. This was fairly typical of the hopeful wave of new media companies: it produced disks on wine, on singing, and on athletics: all of them aimed at the coffee-table book market. None sold. What was an outstanding success, he says, is their CD-rom on evolution, produced with Richard Dawkins. This is partly because it is part of the booming popular science market, on a subject of considerable interest. It is tied into a name that sells, and finally, he says, it contains an element of interactivity: it includes a very slick version of Dawkinsí biomorph program, which allows the reader, or player, to direct the evolution of insect-like creatures on screen.

But for the most part, he says, the consumer market has just failed to arrive. One industry insider, who prefers to remain anonymous in the present state of the market, says that to sell copies is a matter for rejoicing. Though multi-media has many of the production values of film, it has no blockbusters to redeem the costs of all the failed ventures. Here, as elsewhere, Microsoft can appear villainous. "Microsoft has cut the legs off most medium-sized firms by tremendous price-cutting" says Whittam Smith.

Perhaps the proportion of worthwhile CD-roms is about the same as the proportion of worthwhile books published. But the great difference is that you can browse books before buying them. You do not have to commit £30 or £50 on the strength of a good-looking box whose contents remain a mystery and cannot be exchanged. If twenty years of personal computers have shown one thing, it is that people hate to pay for software; and in fact that consumers wonít pay for it, though companies can be forced to.

Only one category of multimedia overcomes all the handicaps of being expensive, impossible to sample, and copying badly what is done better in other media, and that is games. Even games originally given away, like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, have made fortunes for their writers, for once you have played the free segment, you are happy to pay extra for the rest of the game in all its gory glory. They provide an experience which is entirely unlike anything that existed before computers; and they demand sound and moving pictures to deliver their effects, and even their video seems more convincing than what you get in more earnest programs, since it is invested with emotional meaning, which allows us to see what the designer meant and not the blocks of pixels on screen.

Front Cuts Book Back

This stuff written and copyright Andrew Brown. If the page looks bad, that's my fault, unless you're using Netscape 4.x. Then it's yours. Upgrade, and do yourself a favour.