Multimedia, the long-awaited marriage of computers with video and stereo sound, may be just around the corner, but the market's pacesetters are still arguing over just how much hardware muscle users will need to get the full "multimedia experience."
One camp, led by Microsoft Corp., insists that millions of current IBM-compatible personal computers are good enough to be multimedia machines with the addition of a CD-ROM drive and an audio board. International Business Machines Corp., on the other hand, argues that multimedia requires far more power and that most users will have to buy a new computer if they want dazzling animated graphics, video and rich stereo sound to issue from their machines. And Apple Computer Inc. insists that just about all of its computers are multimedia computers right out of the box.
At stake, in part, is who will control the development of multimedia software and reap the rewards of what experts expect will be a huge new market. Also at stake are the wallets of consumers, who may invest in multimedia computing equipment but be disappointed for a year or more as they wait for a critical mass of software to develop.
There is little doubt that major computer companies such as IBM, Apple, Microsoft and Intel Corp. are serious about multimedia. Last month's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas showcased plenty of multimedia demonstrations, including a huge IBM booth devoted only to multimedia. A video board co-developed by Intel and IBM was named the best new product of Comdex by Byte, a computer enthusiast magazine.
Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash., software maker that dominates personal computer operating systems, also wants to be the driving force behind multimedia.
Multimedia computing is a personal darling of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who is attempting to buy the rights to create and distribute digital images of the world's greatest art objects. That has helped push multimedia into a prominent position in Microsoft's business and has led to a long effort to establish hardware standards for multimedia computers.
Microsoft's plan is called MPC, short for Multimedia Personal Computer. A basic MPC machine is a standard PC AT-compatible machine with a 10MHz 286 processor, combined with a CD-ROM drive to hold the huge amounts of data required, an audio board, a color screen and a version of Windows with added CD-ROM features.
Tens of millions of existing computers could be upgraded to MPC machines for $700 to $1,000 and would be able to run any multimedia title that displays the MPC logo. Microsoft is betting those numbers will encourage software developers to create MPC titles -- which in turn boosts Microsoft's revenues for Windows and multimedia programming kits and its influence in a major new market.
Eleven companies are backing Microsoft's MPC plan, the chief being Tandy Corp. Tandy is offering both complete MPC machines and upgrade kits that add an MPC-compatible CD-ROM drive and audio card to existing computers.
But IBM, which this year has largely severed its once-intimate relationship with Microsoft over operating systems, is also at odds with its former partner over multimedia. IBM insists that users will need at least a 386SX processor, which means not only a more expensive computer but also that millions of users will have to buy a whole new machine if they want to use multimedia features.
For IBM, that would mean some of the vast new hardware sales it seeks. If it can sink MPC, IBM will also gain more influence in the multimedia business, and that will help pave the way for its work with Apple in the Kaleida joint venture recently announced.
IBM officials say that while they like the concept of MPC -- standardizing machines so one version of a title can run on millions of computers -- the industry must give up trying to force old 286 machines to display video and reproduce sound.
"The implementation is seriously flawed," said Michael Braun, IBM's vice president of multimedia. "If you're a developer, you want to create compelling applications. You're going to require more than 16 colors, more than a 286. You're going to require, if you want to sell to the home, sound that's the equivalent of what you're used to [from CDs]. An application like that is either not going to run on an MPC machine or you're not going to be happy with it."
Microsoft counters that the more powerful machines are great for developers or for some of the business applications that IBM believes will initially fuel the market.
"It represents a difference in what markets we think are viable," said Hugh Chang, a multimedia product manager for Microsoft. One chief target for Microsoft and other MPC companies is "browsers," users who will neither create nor edit multimedia presentations but rather "just listen and learn," Mr. Chang said. "We believe that for browsers, the 286 is fine."
But some analysts say that, even for browsers, the basic MPC hardware is too weak.
"IBM has made a very good case that the hardware for multimedia in the MPC spec doesn't cut it," said Tony Bove, a multimedia analyst. "They're absolutely right about 16-bit sound, and they're right about the 286 processor: It's brain-dead."
The question also remains whether browsers will spend as much as $1,000 for an MPC upgrade kit to install on a 286 computer that itself is worth only a few hundred dollars.
No matter what hardware they choose, users face a dearth of multimedia titles: By the end of the year, only about 40 to 45 MPC titles are expected to be for sale, according to Mr. Chang, and 10 of them are for programmers.
"There's a great potential -- next year," Mr. Bove said.