Multimedia Computing: P Cs That Do Everything But Walk The Dog

If there's one thing just about every pundit agrees on concerning the future of the personal computer, it's that it will have a "multimedia" personality. That is, it's going to deal with humans by using more than just green or amber text and simplistic bar graphs. Tomorrow's multimedia computer will add color video images and hi-fi stereo sound. It will synthesize human speech, turn the results of scientific experiments into animated pictures, and even improvise jazz. With everything from Citizen Kane and Mood Indigo to simulated car crashes and DNA chains available in digital form, the multimedia computer is going to open windows into a vast new world of information and entertainment.

Which is just what the stagnating PC industry is looking for right now--a big dose of show biz, to make computers easier to use and alluring to a mass-consumer market. Perhaps 25% mf the U. S. population regularly uses computers now, because the machines are either too difficult to run or too limited in reach. Multimedia technology, though, promises to help even the illiterate participate in the Information Age. In Tulare County, Calif., farm workers are signing up for social services on touch-screen PCs that show digitized video clips in English, Spanish, and four Southeast Asian languages.

The PC business today is "like the motion picture industry before sound," says Peter Black, president of Xiphias, aLos Angeles developer of compact multimedia disks. The trouble is that no one's quite sure what type of multimedia machine will unleash the new market by setting a software standard that will encourage production of pre-recorded program material. Will it be a souped-up version of today's IBM PC or Apple Macintosh? Or an entirely new kind of computer, designed just for multimedia use? Or, perhaps, some home-TV add-on for affluent couch potatoes? Should this new machine be sold in computer stores, electronics shops, or mass merchandisers? Where will you shop for multimedia disks?

Indeed, nobody can say for sure what the term multimedia really means--except for some vague commingling of television and computing. "It's like pornography," says Nick Arnett, president and chief analyst of Multimedia Computing Corp., a market researcher in Santa Clara, Calif. "You know it when you see it." Or hear it. But that's not preventing anyone from projecting a market of CinemaScopic proportions: Inteco Corp., a research house in Norwalk, Conn., reckons that from a $4.68 billion market in the U. S. in 1991, multimedia PC gear will balloon to $22 billion by 1995.

For now, the most intriguing multimedia systems are being custom-built for industrial training, education, and public information kiosks. Cornell University medical students learn physiology on Macs connected to optical disks full of text, detailed drawings, and animated sequences. And high school students can now study Tennyson's poem Ulysses on an IBM desktop computer hooked to a videodisk player. They can browse through videos of readings and analyses, including a segment on poetry's relationship to rap songs.

BONANZA. For "power users"--scientists, intelligence analysts, and engineers--the technology will be indispensable to interpreting floods of information. Teams of researchers across the globe will one day be able to talk with and see each other, share electronic-blackboard scribblings, and watch films generated from experimental data, all via a network of desktop computers.

The elusive bonanza, though, is the mass market. Virtually every source of information into the home--cable TV, videotapes, floppy disks, books, newspapers, radio, CDs, or even the telephone--is grist for the multimedia mill. As a result, there's a momentous battle shaping up between U. S. and Japanese manufacturers over the digitized future. The U. S. group leads in computers and software. But the Japanese electronics giants may be better positioned for the convergence of computing, consumer electronics, and entertainment. Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. and Sony Corp., for instance, are leaders in home electronics, and they now also own big-name U. S. entertainment companies to pump out film and audio material.

The Japanese threat, say many industry watchers, is part of what prompted IBM to team up with Apple. By making Apple its multimedia partner, IBM is keeping Apple from forging stronger ties with Sony.

As in VCRs, the progress of the home multimedia business will be contingent on well-established standards. In addition to the IBM-Apple team, Microsoft Corp. and Tandy Corp. are forging a standard for PC-based multimedia systems. Microsoft is giving its Windows program the ability to record sound and play audio CDs, for instance. Dutch giant Philips Consumer Electronics, with help from Sony and Matsushita, is pushing CDI, its own format for multimedia disks.

This fall will see the first attempts to create a mass market. Tandy has introduced a multimedia PC, and Philips plans to start selling a CDI computer. Its laser disks include video segments, sound, text, and images, and software to coordinate them. A typical use: multimedia encyclopedias. Commodore International Ltd. is already selling CDTV. The $1,000 player incorporates a computer but plugs into any TV and resembles a VCR. It's controlled by a remote keypad. One early disk: "Scary Poems for Rotten Kids," which, with pictures, English and Spanish text, and audio, teaches language skills and explores childhood fears. David Rosen, Commodore's director of international marketing, calls CDTV the "Trojan horse" that will get computers into the home.

Watching closely will be Microsoft, IBM, Sony, and Apple, among others, which are expected to flesh out their own multimedia strategies and product lines next year. These companies will be looking to see if Philips' and Commodore's multimedia formats sell. With the market potential for multimedia seemingly so vast, no one wants to get stuck on the losing side of the next Betamax-vs.-VHS format battle.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE