LIBRARY ON A DISK
After years of hype and anticipation, CD-ROM (Compact Disc-Read Only Memory) drives are finally here. These relatives of standard laser-read compact discs can annex vast amounts of computer information to your computer, turning it into a library, a concert hall, a movie theater, and more.
CD-ROM is a play-only technology, like a book or audio compact disc, and that appeals to software publishers seeking durable and data-secure ways to deliver their products. CD-ROMs are inexpensive to manufacture and are getting cheaper all the time: It can cost as little as $2 to press a disc, far less than the equivalent floppy disks or paper. Best of all, they hold stupefying amounts of data—600 or more mega-bytes—equal to perhaps a thousand average-sized books or hundreds of Lotus 1-2-3-sized applications.
CD-ROMs offer you easy access to unlimited information—whole encyclopedias, huge bibliographies, massive picture collections, entire orchestral works with notation, even full-motion video—at a very reasonable price. The CD-ROM version of The New Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia costs less than the original paper version (it doesn't have high-quality color illustrations, though). A single shelf of CD-ROMs can hold the equivalent of the printed information contained in a good local library, accessible at the speed of your computer. (While CD-ROM drives are still rather slow—search speeds are somewhere between those of floppy drives and hard disks—they're still faster than paging through a book.)
Unfortunately, current CD-ROM drives are expensive (typically $700-$1,000 for a stand-alone unit) and aren't carried in most computer stores. Computer makers are addressing this problem by building CD-ROM drives right into the computer itself. Steve Jobs kicked off the trend two years ago by including read/write optical storage in every NeXT workstation. On the home front, Vendex introduced last November the first PC sporting a built-in CD-ROM drive, bundled with several discs to get you started. Commodore's recently announced CDTV combines an Amiga 500 motherboard with CD-ROM technology. The emphasis will be on games and multimedia programming with a lot of color, sound, and animation. Sierra On-Line plans to seed the market this Christmas season by bundling a CD-ROM drive with some CD-based entertainment software for about $700. The writing is on the wall, and soon you'll see CD-ROM equipped machines from Tandy and other major manufacturers—maybe even IBM and Apple. External CD-ROM drives will become smaller and cheaper as well, since it's not too difficult in principle to adapt a portable CD player to CD-ROM use.
Beyond new hardware, CD-ROMs really call for new kinds of programming as well. It doesn't make sense to publish a CD-ROM with just one game on it (unless it's a very complex game with video, animation, and so on). For the near future, most software companies will stick to floppies for distributing single programs; CD-ROMs will be the domain of big reference works, general-purpose databases (such as the National ZIP Code Directory), and multimedia.
From the developers' viewpoint, the transition from floppy disk programming to CD-ROM programming is like living in a 1-room apartment all your life and then suddenly moving to a 100-room mansion on a 1000-acre estate. The space is great, but you may have some trouble furnishing the rooms and tending the garden.
As you might expect, the quality of the CD-ROMs currently available is uneven. While some CD-ROMs are easy to use; others have plainly been thrown together without much thought as to how best to organize and provide access to the information. Imagine trying to use a library in which all the books are stacked randomly on the shelves and the librarians have forgotten to provide a card catalog. Some CD-ROM developers, especially for PCs, put you in a similar position by neglecting to include adequate searching capabilities and comprehensive indexes on their discs. Unfortunately, there's usually no way to evaluate how usable a CD-ROM is until you've paid for it; good, comparative reviews of CD-ROMs are hard to find. My observation is that offerings from traditional publishers with years of experience in producing reference books and databases are likely to be useful and well thought out.
Among software publishers, Microsoft is strongly committed to CD-ROM technology; its Microsoft Office CD-ROM includes four of the company's best-selling programs plus all the documentation, tutorials, and other goodies you'll ever need, all in a format that's easy to use.
Right now, the number of CD-ROM titles is small, and many are tailored to the specific needs of technical researchers. But the more computers there are with CD-ROM drives, the more general-purpose CD-ROM software will appear to run on them. The market for CD-ROMs could snowball as rapidly as did the market for audio CDs a couple of years ago. And, just as you don't want to be without your CD player, you won't want to be without your CD-ROM.