Since the late 1970s we have tried, as writers and editors, to take advantage of emerging publishing technologies. We've had varying degrees of success. Mostly we were driven by the need to have control over the entire production process, to create a better product. In the case of technical books, a 'better product' was one that was devoid of typesetting and page layout errors.
Despite the rhetoric of 'revolution' that accompanied the desktop publishing phenomenon, there wasn't much of a true revolution in desktop publishing. All that really happened was the wresting of typesetting and page layout control from the photocomposition priesthood.
As we entered into book contracts in the late 1980s, producing each book with desktop publishing technology, we were still bound up in a wasteful distribution system that favors the largest publishers at the expense of writers. The book distribution channel, like most distribution channels that rely on warehouses, trucking, and retail outlets, is dominated by what is called the '
The logical step for us was to find ways to improve the distribution of our content to our customers -- to make the distribution more efficient, and to make it possible for customers to judge the quality of our content and make buying decisions based on qualitative differences rather than simply buying whatever was on the shelf at the book store. Large publishers had long ago learned every technique for dominating the store racks, and deals with those publishers were not attractive, nor did we feel that they paid enough attention to quality.
Thus, we were driven to do desktop publishing. We are similarly driven to do multimedia products, and to publish electronically. We were convinced back in 1986 that our content would someday be delivered through an electronic medium without paper, bypassing the highly inefficient and profit-soaking paper-based distribution channel.
While we were a little ahead of ourselves with that prediction, we are now witnessing the advent of a truly electronic medium -- the Mosaic 'home page' and World Wide Web network -- that will shortly carry our publications.
If the point of desktop publishing was simply to make production less expensive for the large publishing companies, then the so-called 'revolution' was merely product propaganda. A true revolution in media will put the power of publishing in the hands of
Such a revolution is possible not just with desktop publishing or multimedia tools, but with online publishing, which has the potential to cut out the distribution mafia. At that point, the media revolution will truly be liberating for artists and writers, and also for grassroots organizers, community services, alternative schools and home schoolers, and a variety of other
Without that leap of faith, and willingness to invest, in an effort to apply technology early and push the development forward, the technology is stillborn. There are few bankable visionaries in the industry, and all of them, including
This is why we hold in contempt so many of those people who invest in a technological venture hoping to profit as soon as possible. At this embryonic stage, the revolution should be nurtured, not tortured with improbable sales projections and endless meetings with investors.
If this sounds like a rant, that's because we have recently been talking with various publishers and potential investors in fairly typical, extremely risky, CD-ROM entertainment ventures, and we both came away feeling slimed. Those who are risk averse, who in the words of one investor we talked to, 'only wants to invest in something that is 90 percent finished and is a sure thing, and then, wants to retain control,' should step out of the way if they can't lend a hand. We have no evidence that the financial community knows more about creating the next hot product than some garage-inhabiting debt-laden wild-eyed software fanatic.
There is also some agitation in the channel, and a bloody fight over shelf space. Fairly typical of conversations about the state of the CD-ROM industry is the one we had recently with a disgruntled former affiliate of a large distributor who bolted the relationship because the distributor spent more on a competing product that went nowhere. He said, 'They were pushing their own shitty product over my shitty product.'
The clutter of useless CD-ROM products is a natural byproduct of entrepreneurial activity. Perhaps it is not so ironic that the worst of the lot were published by new media divisions of the larger companies, or by partnerships with those companies, in an effort to cash in on this new wave with repurposed content.
However, high returns of CD-ROM product should not discourage new publishers or existing publishers from entering the field, nor should it dampen the enthusiasm for CD-ROM applications in other areas. In some ways, the trade press is as much to blame as the skittish investors in poisoning the atmosphere with hastily-drawn conclusions. As $2,000 desktop CD-ROM recorders start to appear at the end of this year, the cynics might be caught by surprise at the explosion of
Even so, an explosion of CD-ROM would not make enough of a revolution for artists and writers and other creative individuals to escape the stifling distribution system that favors large, vertical distributors.
CD-ROM publishers have to think about moving on from the limited, single-disc products that must be manufactured and shipped to stores, to offering an online experience, more like a service, providing a stream of constantly updated information. The difference can be subtle but extremely important, such as the difference between a CD-ROM about baseball statistics, and a CD-ROM about baseball statistics that connects you to an
The Next Big Thing is probably something that will link homes, schools, libraries, and government in an efficiently managed information highway. These are institutions that do not present pretty bottom line prospects to the risk-averse. But we believe that the areas of education, community service, and employment training will soon be the hottest areas of the multimedia infobahn.
We believe this because these areas are in desperate need of technological improvement, and where there is a strong need, there is an opportunity. There will also be a need for alternatives in entertainment, art, and music, because these areas have long been dominated by large monied interests. There is a need for media liberation, and multimedia and online technology will be pressed to fill this need.
There was a time, way back in 1980, when people felt that the new personal computers should be placed in libraries and that free learning sessions should be held for children and parents. We volunteered to teach some of these sessions, using a borrowed Apple II and an early copy of VisiCalc, and we spent most of the session demonstrating how people could do their own income taxes with it. It didn't matter that most of the parents were well-off people from Menlo Park, surrounded by a scientific community, who could probably have afforded to pay for these sessions. The fact is, they didn't know the sessions would be worthwhile.
Today, doing your
Yes, money will be made someday, but some people have to go out on limbs, donate their time and energy, and take risks to make things happen. This attitude will not be found in the board rooms of large companies who are skittish about stockholder dividends (as in the RBOCs), nor in many of the conference rooms of the venture capitalist groups making half-hearted bids for interactive television bandwidth that they don't intend to back up with deposits.
The old road is rapidly aging. And the loser now will be later to win. -- TB & CR
I put on the old
The technology has progressed considerably. I can remember spending many long hours modifying PostScript images to make them run through imagesetters, and screaming obscenities about font incompatibilities.
Never mind that I now spend many more hours editing and compressing video clips, and I'm always screaming obscenities about incompatible multimedia hardware. This is progress! I may be hung up waiting for Internet connections to be debugged, but at least I'm waiting at 14,400 baud. Yes, it's a little like going nowhere, but getting there faster.
Are we more productive as communicators now that we use multimedia tools? Perhaps not. But are we having fun yet? Definitely. -- TB
Microsoft managed to survive a
While the industry remains in sync with Microsoft's glacial pace, the market plods along slowly, with incremental improvements over time that create their own compatibility issues and force expensive upgrades on the unsuspecting consumers.
What if we all migrated to Windows 4... would that make much of a difference in productivity in the world of PC software? At this point, users have choices of over 29 different video capture cards, 33 different 16-bit sound cards, and more than 100 content-capturing and authoring tools. Do you really believe that all these products will be 'plug and play' compatible with PCs running Windows 4? The Plug and Play specs may be a reachable goal in our lifetimes, but a bit more time must pass before old PCs and cards in business settings will be replaced by new ones. -- TB
But if the PC industry makes the same mistake with Plug and Play as it did with the MPC specs--creating more expensive Windows 4 Plug and Play models to sell next to lower-cost 'regular' PCs--Windows 4 will suffer from a slow acceptance rate, and the market will be further segmented. And Apple will still have a chance.
(I already hear talk of the PC market segregated into cheaper Windows 3.1 machines and faster/more expensive Windows 4 machines. I made this argument before, with the first MPC: the Plug and Play machines with the fastest video hardware, etc. should be sold in large quantities into homes, not priced out of the range of home buyers.)
If Windows 4 successfully penetrates the home market, where does that leave
In the meantime, Apple can build on a small but vibrant installed base. Macs are equivalent to Plug and Play Windows 4 machines, and may even be cheaper at first in the home market. Compared to low-priced PCs running Windows 3.1, low-priced Macs with something extra for communications would be attractive in the home market.
While the home market is growing rapidly, it is still up for grabs. PCs are fast becoming relics. Windows 4 machines may be too large a jump in price for the home market. This situation depends on how machines are packaged and priced. -- CR
Multimedia tools, along with high-quality image processing tools for desktop publishing, pulled the Mac out of its rapid descent. Professional publishers and artists, and the pioneers of multimedia, stuck with the Mac because, to be a multimedia publisher and developer, the Mac was (and still is) the best platform for development. You can use it to develop CD-ROM titles and online services for other platforms.
Multimedia tools have reached a technological plateau. Video standards are now in place to take advantage of the faster hardware that will be widely available in less that two years. Audio standards are already in place.
Storage costs will remain much the same, give or take a few new transfer media inventions such as the
Multimedia tools are not likely to change much, except perhaps getting a little bit easier to use. Many of these tools are beyond their third revision and are quite sturdy. Hardware performance and wider use of digital video will pump life into these tools and make them relevant for a wider range of applications in business and niche publishing ventures.
There is always a need for better and easier tools, and for new features, but such features will take a few years to develop. Incremental changes will be made until higher-bandwidth home communications develops. -- TB
Mostly I find myself cursing the infobahn's decrepit on-ramp, the local phone service, out here in our Northern Calif. paradise. (Not that we have a podunk phone outfit--we're in the service area of Pacific Bell, which promises "ISDN everywhere"--but we can't seem to get a phone line that works reliably even at 9600 baud.)
I'm also mad at
While we're on the subject, what is wrong with Apple for relying on AOL's technology for its eWorld? Doesn't Apple have more to offer the world than non-standard user interfaces? The Mac hasn't improved in years, and Windows 4 (Chicago) looms on the horizon, threatening to make the existing Mac's features irrelevant.
RBOC is an acronym for Regional Bell Operating Company and is used to identify the group of companies spun out of AT&T that offer regional telephone service.