A decade ago, one of the most popular personal computer games was an adventure program called Zork. Like most other early-generation titles, Zork came on one floppy disk and had major limitations. Instead of looking at colorful pictures, players had to rely on text descriptions, such as "You are standing in an open field, west of a white house." They would have to type instructions, such as "open door," and the computer would respond with more text.
The new CD-ROM version of Zork, released in October by software maker Activision, bears little resemblance to the original. Return to Zork is still basically a fantasy where players pretend to be heroes on a quest against an evil sorcerer. But instead of reading descriptions, digitized videos of actors playing the characters appear on-screen and speak to you, giving you clues to solve various riddles. To fight a bad guy, you just "click" on a displayed sword and point it at the figure on the screen.
Like Zork, software in general has undergone radical transformations. Easy-to-use "interfaces," such as Microsoft's Windows and Apple Computer's Macintosh, which replace difficult text commands with small on-screen icons or pictures that you click on, have made mastering software much less of a chore. In addition, clever graphics prompt users to carry out complex tasks. For example, a program that keeps track of your expenses might ask you to enter information on a checkbook-like form on the computer screen. And if you run into trouble, today's software can give you instructions--written, verbal, or even on video.
WordPerfect 6.0 for Windows, the newest version of the popular word processing program, shows how far software has come. Owners of previous versions had to remember quirky function commands or move the mouse to menus on top of the screen to do simple tasks, such as check for spelling errors. In the new WordPerfect, frequently used commands are reduced to icons on a tool bar. For example, if you want to change type styles, you can place a font button along the edge of the screen. To switch fonts, just click the button with your mouse and choose a font from the list that appears.
MEGABYTE HOGS. The trade-off for simplicity and all the added functions is that few programs can be contained any longer on a single floppy disk. WordPerfect 6.0 comes packaged on 12 floppies and hogs up to 32 megabytes of hard-drive space. Such useful yet complex software needs more powerful hardware, rendering many older PC systems obsolete.
If traditional floppy-disk-based programs have gotten more sophisticated, CD-ROMs are just starting to come into their own. Each CD-ROM (for compact-disk, read-only memory) can hold more than 680 megabytes of information, equal to more than 470 floppy disks. With this still-developing multimedia technology, software makers can cram computer-generated text and graphics along with digitized audio and video onto one shiny platter.
The computing public is catching on to the potential of CD-ROMs. Preliminary data from market researcher Link Research show that nearly 718,000 PCs sold in the U.S. this year will be multimedia machines, and more than 550,000 upgrade kits will be installed on older systems--nearly five times as many as last year. That has software publishers rushing to produce an abundance of multimedia titles covering a broad spectrum of topics.
One of the most interesting categories is personal productivity. This includes programs such as Intuit's best-selling personal-finance package, Quicken. Intuit recently introduced a $70 multimedia version for the Windows operating system that includes a digitized version of The Wall Street Journal's Video Guide to Money and Markets and other tools, such as an income tax estimator. The video guide teaches novices about how the stock market works by presenting short film clips with narration in a small corner of the computer screen. According to Peter Dumanian, a product manager for Intuit, orders for the CD-ROM have so far been triple what was initially expected, thanks to high consumer demand for information on how to invest in stocks and bonds.
Intuit's competitors are sure to follow suit. Meca Software in Fairfield, Conn., is working on a CD-ROM-based version of its TaxCut program with digitized video that will give advice on preparing a 1993 federal income tax return.
BLURRING LINES. Education is another area where CD-ROMs are sure to take off. Microsoft's Encarta multimedia encyclopedia, a reference work containing more than 96 minutes of video segments and 8 hours of audio clips, is a standout. Owners can search for global topics and events spanning the past century--including speeches from the Middle East peace accords signed last June. Another interesting title from Microsoft is the $80 Dinosaurs, which teaches kids about the prehistoric creatures and brings them back to life through computer animation. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a $60 CD-ROM from Broderbund Software, blurs the line between education and entertainment by teaching children basic geography in the form of a cops-and-robbers game.
Few categories are as tailor-made for the CD-ROM format as computer games. Return to Zork and the $80 Critical Path by Media Vision (the same company that makes multimedia hardware-upgrade kits) both use digitized video and music to draw players into the game. A movie featuring real actors from the Screen Actors Guild unfolds on the computer's monitor, and players move the game along by assisting the characters. A far cry from the text-only games of yore, these programs are just the beginning of the so-called digital future, when Hollywood and computer companies will work jointly to produce interactive movies and software.
REPAIRS VIA PC. And there are plenty of other nascent uses for CD-ROMs. Their relatively cheap pro-duction costs mean software makers are putting all sorts of data on CD-ROM. Looking for a videotape to curl up with on a rainy Saturday? Micro-soft's $80 Cinemania '94 gives you thousands of movie reviews and some film clips that can guide you in choosing rentals from the video store.
Many print publishers are developing multimedia editions of magazines, including McGraw-Hill and its special CD-ROM edition of the
BUSINESS WEEK 1000 issue. Others, such as KidSoft in Los Gatos, Calif., are producing children's magazines containing not only stories and music but also demonstration versions of popular software for parents and kids to try out.
But what if you don't have a CD-ROM drive? Software manufacturers such as Knowledge Adventure in La Crescenta, Calif., have produced multimedia works on regular floppy disks. Knowledge Adventure's educational programs, such as the $60 Undersea Adventure and $60 Kid's Zoo, can show full-motion video clips and narration from your PC's hard drive. Other companies, such as Books That Work in Palo Alto, Calif., produce similar floppy-disk-only titles. Its latest effort, the $50 Home Survival Toolkit, teaches PC owners how to make everyday repairs around the house.
Even as software makers try to perfect these technologies, newer developments are cropping up. Companies are working on voice recognition that would allow the computer to understand your verbal commands and "virtual reality" programs that would immerse the user in an artificial computer-generated world. The software of tomorrow will one day make Return to Zork seem like old hat.
A MULTIMEDIA GIFT LIST Software Company Price Description ENCARTA Microsoft $99* A CD-ROM encyclopedia with audio clips and pictures covering events as recent as the Mideast peace accord UNDERSEA Knowledge 60 Teaches about sea animals using ADVENTURE Adventure audio and video clips that don't require a CD-ROM drive RETURN Activision 80 The 1990s sequel of a 1980s computer TO ZORK game that features digitized videos of real actors such as Jason Hervey QUICKEN FOR Intuit 70** The best-selling personal finance software WINDOWS now comes with video portions that CD-ROM explain all about the stock market Deluxe Edition *Expires Dec. 31, 1993; full retail price is $395 **Current Quicken owners pay only $59.95 DATA: BUSINESS WEEK