System seeks consumer, education markets


March 16, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

CD-ROM, a technology that used to be as exciting as a 10,000-page statistical data base, is trying to enter the consumer and education markets on the coattails of its flashier cousin, the audio compact disk.

To be successful in the consumer world, CD-ROM -- compact disks carrying information that can be read but not edited -- must prove itself to be colorful, musical, flashy, entertaining and inexpensive.

Sony Corp. of America, maker of the Sony Laser Library CD-ROM system for IBM PC-compatible computers, appears to be on the right track.

The Sony Laser Library consists of an external CD-ROM player that attaches to a PC, all the necessary connector boards, cables and software, and an impressive selection of CD-ROM reference, education and entertainment programs. The Laser Library also comes with headphones and with software that allows the CD-ROM drive to play any standard audio compact disk.

Sony offers the Laser Library system, including software, for a suggested list price of $699, which is what some companies charge for a CD-ROM drive alone.

The software includes Compton's Family Encyclopedia, Microsoft Bookshelf Reference Library, National Geographic's Mammals encyclopedia, a children's game called Mixed-Up Mother Goose, the Software Toolworks World Atlas, a selection of audio tracks from Sony's Music Entertainment division and 12 foreign language dictionaries.

L The software alone has a suggested list price of about $900.

Instead of endless volumes of plain text, which is the standard fare of CD-ROM, these CD-ROM titles have been jazzed up with snippets of stereo sound, color graphics, animation and video.

"It's the kind of product that's going to have greater appeal" than jTC the highly specialized applications used by businesses, said Ray C. Freeman Jr., president of Freeman Associates Inc. of Santa Barbara, Calif., a market research company.

"The CD-ROM market is going to need just this kind of attack from a major player like Sony to open it up."

But it remains unclear, Mr. Freeman said, just how big the CD-ROM market will be. Many other technologies, most in the development stage, have the potential to bypass CD-ROM.

For example, said Kathryn Hilton, director of optical storage research at the market research firm Infocorp, in Santa Clara, Calif., Sony already is showing off prototype technology superior to CD-ROM.

"It's a 2 1/2 -inch minidisk, like the Sony Diskman but smaller and rewriteable, and with better performance than a CD," Ms. Hilton said.

The optical minidisk will appear first as an audio product, she said, with a data product version a year or two later.

A bigger issue is the impact of the Multimedia PC Council, a group of computer hardware and software companies that have banded together under the MPC banner.

Their goal is to create minimum standards for computer makers and software developers, so that any MPC-labeled computer will be able to play any MPC-labeled CD-ROM disks, including titles that use stereo sound mixed with full-motion color video.

To qualify for the MPC label a computer must have a CD-ROM drive that meets certain technical specifications. The Sony Laser Library CD-ROM drive, although highly impressive by all other measures, does not meet one of those specifications.

It will be able to run the text and still-graphics portions of MPC disks, but any sequences that combine sound and animation will be erratic. Those are the sequences that make multimedia especially worthwhile.

However, Media Vision Inc. of Fremont, Calif., recently introduced a $359 sound card, called the Pro Audio Spectrum-16, that connects to the Sony Laser Library drive and brings it up to MPC compliance.

Given the broad industry support behind the MPC standard, it seems to be prudent to invest in systems that comply with it. Little MPC software is available now, but more is coming.

For the time being, the Sony Laser Library is a very good starter system for people looking to enter the CD-ROM world. It requires a PC-compatible computer with 512 kilobytes of system memory, a hard disk, VGA graphics and monitor, a mouse, and DOS 3.1 or above.

We found it easy to install the drive (Sony includes a screwdriver in the box, a nice touch) and fairly easy to use the software. The command structure (also known as the interface) of CD-ROM software is ugly and clunky by today's standards, and there are no standard commands.

Sony includes a set of earphones that are needed to take advantage of the CD-ROM drive's audio CD capabilities.

We were unable to crank the sound up enough to do justice to a favorite Jimi Hendrix CD, but it was adequate for listening to background classical music while working on a spreadsheet.

Sony Corp. of America Computer Peripheral Products Co. is based in San Jose, Calif., and can be reached at (800) 352-7669. The Sony drives, by the way, are manufactured in San Diego.

Media Vision Inc., of Fremont, Calif., can be reached at (800) 348-7116.

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