Latest computer technology spawns cottage industry


June 29, 1993|By Gary Rosenzweig | Gary Rosenzweig,Staff Writer

The husband-and-wife team of Jonathan and Laurie Davis is stepping into the future of publishing by taking a stroll through the past. Their first product: a computer-read multimedia CD about American history.

The Davises are taking advantage of new computer technology that allows such CDs, which offer photographs, sound and text, to be easily produced. Their "American Journey 1896-1945" includes photographs of the Hindenburg explosion, a radio news report of the Pearl Harbor attack and biographies of 10 U.S. presidents.

And they're part of a growing trend: small, low-cost multimedia developers producing CD titles on home computer systems.

"There's no question that there is plenty of room for small creators if they are savvy, clever and creative," said Philip Dodds, executive director of the Interactive Multimedia Association, a trade group headquartered in Annapolis.

Robert Abraham, an analyst with Freeman Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif., says low start-up costs allow small companies to get into the business easily. "It certainly has a cottage industry atmosphere."

He predicts that sales will grow as computer CD readers become more common and more titles are developed. Computer CDs, called CD-ROMs, look like audio CDs but can hold large amounts of computer data needed for multimedia applications.

The Davises set up their company, Ibis Communications, in their Columbia basement two years ago, as the realization of a lifelong dream to start a business.

Mr. Davis, 48, had been exposed to multimedia at Johns Hopkins University's medical school, where he taught medical decision-making. There he worked on a project involving similar technology. "I was impressed with what it can do to inform on an interactive level," he said.

He left Hopkins in 1980 to work with a number of small multimedia companies and on numerous free-lance projects, and Mrs. Davis, 44, began working with him. The Davises, who continue to work on free-lance projects to maintain some income, saved so they could begin Ibis without any financial help.

They would not discuss the financial details of their venture. But development costs for CD-ROM titles usually range from $50,000 to $500,000, says a spokeswoman for Compton's New Media, which is marketing and distributing "American Journey 1896-1945." The cost depends largely on the amount of licensing needed to reproduce material such as photographs and music, Christina Germscheid says.

Mr. Davis chose the period 1896 to 1945 partly because there was a large amount of material in the public domain, meaning it did not require licensing fees. Most of the photographs and original audio, for example, came from the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington.

The result of two years of research and programming -- including work with professional narrators and artists -- "American Journey 1896-1945" includes almost 1,000 photographs and more than an hour of audio.

Although the CD could be used to complement classroom history lessons, the Davises are primarily targeting the consumer market. "It's not meant to be an encyclopedia, but something you can browse through and enjoy," Mr. Davis said.

The CD, which runs on IBM-compatibles, carries a suggested retail price of $59.95. Carlsbad, Calif.-based Compton's, which has about 140 CD-ROM titles and produces the popular Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia on CD-ROM, distributes at more than 4,800 stores nationwide.

About 80 of Compton's titles come from small affiliates such as Ibis, Ms. Germscheid says.

Compton's receives about five to 12 titles a month and agrees to produce and distribute about 60 percent of them, Ms. Germscheid says. Some works are rejected for such reasons as lack of quality or an affiliate's instability, she says. Generally, affiliates such as Ibis receive a percentage of sales; Compton's gets the right of first refusal on any future titles.

The Davises plan to make one CD per year, the next being about American history from 1860 to 1896, Mr. Davis says. He hopes to add animation and video to some future CDs.

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