Multimedia 1994: the state of the art

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, February 18, 1994

From about 1985 on, next year was going to be "YEAR OF THE LAN" by
some computer magazine or other. "This is the year when we're all
going to get connected".

Well, most business personal computers DID end up getting
wired together, but it was a slow and steady process... not the big
explosion predicted by magazine cover after magazine cover.

By the beginning of the '90s, much of this hype transfered over to "
Multimedia", also known as "the next big thing".

So you won't catch me calling 1994 "The Year When Multimedia Takes

Still, while I don't think we'll see any dramatic shifts, I think
we're in for a year of steady growth... as the diffuse group of
products and technologies that gets lumped together as multimedia
continues to get closer and closer to the personal computing


Let's look back just a couple of years to 1991-92. Then, Microsoft
released Multimedia Extensions to the then-current Windows 3.0,
building them into the core of Windows 3.1 in 1992. IBM followed
suit, making OS/2 an "Ultimedia" operating system. Movie standards
slowly emerged, starting with QuickTime on the Mac, moving to
Video for Windows (AVI) and QuickTime for Windows in the Fall of

And a collection of hardware and software companies collaborated
on a minimum standard for a so-called MPC, Multimedia PC platform.
Let's just see how far we've come.

They said that a basic multimedia machine would consist of a 286-
10, with at least 2 meg of ram, a 30 meg hard disk, a single-speed
CD-ROM player, 256 colour SVGA display, and a mono, 8-bit Sound
Blaster compatible sound card. Pretty soon, they were forced to
admit that this minimum machine was TOO minimum, and upped the
standard to a 386SX-16 platform.

Now, just two years or so later, the basic entry level PC comes
with a 486, a 100-200 mb hard drive, and an accelerated video card that can
support 64,000 or even 16.7 million colours. Double-speed CD-ROM
players start at $300. 16-bit stereo sound cards are common.

And while every PC sold DOESN'T come with the CD-ROM player and
sound card, these are more and more common, especially on machines
sold for home use. There's a public awareness of multimedia, that'
s being reflected in hardware sales.

Reflecting this, the MPC Council has produced an MPC Level 2
specification, which pretty much reflects this new basic hardware.


The next year will continue this trend towards taking increased
speed and power for granted. 486s are as common and as inexpensive as 386s were a
year or two ago. And while the first 486s cost $5000-1000, the
first Pentiums are arriving in $3500-6000 machines. With entry-
level machines coming with 200 meg hard drives, the power users
are eyeing 500 meg and even 1 gigabyte drives. SCSI is becoming
more common. Triple-speed and even quadruple-speed CD-ROM players
will slowly become more common and affordable.

Software will take this sort of power for granted. One of the
first areas to really make use of this is games; even now, we're
starting to see games that aren't content with the 600 meg or so
of a single CD-ROM disk... 7th GUEST, for example, takes up two
disks... over a gigabyte of code.

(I guess it's not that surprising-- games have always pushed the
envelope, demanding high-resolution colour, sound, and now, more
and more video in the continual quest for more realistic fantasy).

This growth of multimedia hardware on home computers has also
spurred software companies to look at home and small business as a
viable market apart from big business software. First Microsoft,
and more recently Word Perfect have announced ambitious plans to
release large numbers of titles aimed at a home market that seems
to include parents and children, education and home business. Much
of this product will fall under the multimedia concept.

CD-ROM disks are getting more and more common. We don't get them
in CrackerJack boxes yet, but we're not far from that. For
example, a new magazine, MultiMedia World, promises a 'free' disk
with every issue. PC Magazine's newest benchmarks are only
available on CD-ROM, which the magazine will mail for free to
anyone who asks. Nautilus is a magazine that consists entirely of
a monthly CD-ROM disk (Windows or Mac editions). Last fall, a local computer
swap meet sent out coupons promising a free CD-ROM disk to people

We're going to see more and more of the shiny round things around
our computers; software companies love them... they're cheap to
manufacture, and hard to pirate. Now several companies are using
them as a way to distribute software demos and working models.
Users can try out a wide range of software at home, and then order
the full retail version, cutting traditional retail stores out of
the chain.


Despite this, multimedia hasn't made deep inroads into traditional
business computing. Maybe you can import video clips into your
word processor... is anyone actually doing this? Does anyone
really produce spreadsheets with voice annotation? There's been a
lot of talk about businesses using multimedia authoring products
to create in-house help and training, but I'm not sure there's
really a lot of this being produced.

Some of this is the result of business slowly replacing the late-
80's generation of computers, and even when companies add 486s,
they're far less likely to be able to justify sound cards and CD-
ROM players on their standard desktop machines.

In some ways, we're seeing a blurring around the edges of the
multimedia concept. Nearly all traditional presentation software supports
sound and video. There are even so-called multimedia versions of
products like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Works. Pretty soon, all
software will be multimedia software, and at that point, no one
will notice; it'll be taken for granted.


Well, there's always something better on the horizon. There are
tantalizing possibilities just over the horizon for multimedia and
personal computing in general.

Some things are going to remain the same; for example, Macs are still going to be better multimedia platforms and easier to add peripherals. And PCs are still going to be appreciably cheaper, and command 80-90% of the market.

Should you get that affordable double-speed CD-ROM player now, or
wait for the quad-speed that's certain to be available this time
in 1995? Should you get a 486 now, or wait for Pentium prices to
drop, or wait and see whether Power-PC machines really shake
everything up? Wait and see if Windows 4.0's rumoured Plug and
Play support makes it easier to hook up all those PC periperals?

Sorry, I can't and won't tell you what to do. If you wait, you'll
get more powerful gear. But you also won't get to use that gear
for a year or two.

I find many of the products available right now pretty involving,
and am glad I have to opportunity to work with them, even with my (
gasp!) slow, single speed CD-ROM player, and 8-bit sound card.
While I'll welcome better hardware, I don't know if I could stand
to sit back and wait til next year.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan