After years of anticipation and false starts, compact discs are set to do for computers in the '90s what they did for stereos in the '80s.
Dozens of companies are selling or readying computer CD players and titles for consumer consumption this year.
Even in the past month, companies as diverse as Apple Computer and Nintendo have revealed plans to introduce desk-top computers or video game consoles with CD-ROM drives in 1992. Others are hawking CD-ROM upgrade kits to turn plain computers into multimedia wonders.
Although CD-ROM prices are higher than those for music CD players and discs, they are dropping. Computers with built-in CD-ROM drives are starting at about $2,000. Kits including external CD-ROM drives and the accessories needed to attach them to a computer cost $600 to $1,300. Software titles run anywhere from $50 to $1,000.
lTC "CD-ROM will be like the record industry," said Susan Salay, who follows the market for computer wholesaler Ingram Micro in Santa Ana, Calif. "People will buy tons of discs. They're fascinating, they last a long time and you can use them over and over."
"CD-ROM" stands for compact disc, read-only memory and describes drives that, like music CD players, can read but not change information stored on 4 3/4 -inch silvery plastic platters.
What makes CD-ROM drives and discs so hot is their ability to hold and quickly retrieve massive stockpiles of data. CD-ROM discs hold more than 600 megabytes of information -- as much as 500 high-density 5 1/4 -inch floppy disks. CD-ROM drives access data from the discs in fractions of a second, almost equaling hard disk drives and much faster than floppies.
For several years, CD-ROM drives and discs have been slipping into use at businesses, government agencies and libraries, where they have turned filing cabinets and microfiche readers into dinosaurs. They have also become the storage media of choice at businesses with large networks of personal computers.
However, with a few exceptions, interesting, affordable titles for the general public were not generally available on CD-ROM.
That is changing.
Pioneering CD-ROM titles such as Britannica Software's "Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia" are being joined by dozens of newcomers. A sampler: Broderbund's interactive book Just Grandma and Me"; an updated version of Interplay's popular chess game, "Battle Chess"; and Microsoft's music edutainment offering, "Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony."
Even more CD-ROM games, books, magazines, encyclopedias, children's fare and software tools for developing other titles are beginning to pop up in computer, home electronics and music stores and in mail-order catalogs.
Much of the new "multimedia" software will mix words with pictures, sound, and in some cases, animation and snippets of video.
"Imagine reading a CD-ROM magazine, turning to a Pepsi commercial, clicking on a button and getting 30 seconds of Ray Charles," said Jeff Corbett, who is marketing a CD-ROM computer for CMS Enhancements in Irvine, Calif.
Before hardware and software vendors convince consumers to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars on new gear, however, they will have to overcome a recession-induced slump in sales of computers and consumer electronics. Also, a standards debate reminiscent of the VHS-Betamax battle over videotape cassettes threatens to dampen sales.
"Because of the recession, I'm not bullish for the next year or two," said Robert Abraham, a CD-ROM analyst with Freeman Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif. "But in the long term, it is an appealing technology."
Vendors remain optimistic, mainly because sales already are picking up as prices drop for drives and discs. Retail prices for CD-ROM drives have fallen about 10 percent a year since they premiered in 1987, said Jerry Higgins, a CD-ROM marketing director at Toshiba America in Irvine. Today CD-ROM drives are available for $400 to $600.
Costs for software also are on the decline, with some new titles selling for as little as $50. The majority retail for $100 to $400 -- half the price of earlier consumer CD titles.
Virtually all CD-ROM drives are made in Japan and companies such as Toshiba, Hitachi, Sony, NEC, Pioneer and Matsushita lead the market. The only notable exception is Philips NV, the Dutch electronics conglomerate that with Sony helped pioneer compact disc technology in the late 1970s.
However, U.S. companies aren't being left behind.
A major CD-ROM booster is Microsoft, which sponsored one of the first conferences on computers and CD-ROM six years ago.
In spring 1991, Microsoft, Tandy, NCR and eight other major computer companies formed the Multimedia PC Marketing Council to promote CD-ROM and establish a minimum computer configuration for using the drives.
Now, computers that carry the council's "MPC" (for multimedia computer) logo must have a minimum of: a 386sx microprocessor, 2 megabytes of RAM, 30 megabyte hard drive, VGA display, mouse, keyboard, serial, parallel, MIDI and joystick ports, headphones or speakers and DOS.
Another key element is an addition to Microsoft's Windows 3.0 graphical user interface called Multimedia Extensions that allows computers to mix text, graphics, sound and other input.
More than 40 software companies have adopted the council's MPC standard, according to Glenn Ochsenreiter, the council's managing director.
Apple Computer, a longtime multimedia advocate, also will unveil two Macintosh models with built-in CD-ROM drives in time for Christmas 1992.