Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 139 / APRIL 1992 / PAGE S1

What is multimedia? (Compute's Getting Started with Multimedia)
by David English

It's the new buzz word. You see it in the magazines and hear it at the computer trade shows. But what exactly is multimedia? Twenty years ago, it meant a presentation with two or more slide projectors and synchronized sound. Today, we're told it's the next big step in the evolution of the PC.

Macintosh and Amiga computers, with their builtin sound support and growing use of CD-ROM, have been multimedia platforms for several years. Microsoft got the ball rolling for the PC on November 27, 1990. That's when it announced the new Multimedia PC (MPC) standard, in conjunction with Tandy, AT&T, CompuAdd, Creative Labs, Fujitsu, Headland Technology/Video Seven, Media Vision, NEC Technologies, Olivetti, and Zenith Data Systems.

The main components of this standard are a CD-ROM drive, a sound board, and the multimedia extensions to Windows 3.0. (According to Microsoft, the multimedia extensions officially are called Microsoft Windows graphical environment 3.0 + Multimedia extensions 1.0, but can be informally called Windows with Multimedia.) The plan was that you would buy either a new MPC computer or an upgrade kit for your current 286, 386, or 486 PC. The upgrade kits usually include either a CD-ROM drive or a sound card (or both) and Windows with Multimedia.

After a few delays, the MPC computers and upgrade kits started shipping in September 1991, and Microsoft held a big coming-out party in October at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Sixty different MPC software titles were shown--though at press time, only about half are actually shipping.

So what's in it for you? Is it worth $600-$1,200 to upgrade your present PC? Are the titles that are available now or will be released throughout the year worth all the commotion? Is multimedia really the biggest thing to hit the PC since hard drives and color? Or is it just another over-rated, soon-to-be-forgotten computertechnology, like bubble memory and the paperless office?

I'll stick my neck out and predict that multimedia will be much slower to catch on than people think, but when it does catch on, it will be much bigger than people now imagine. Three or four years from now, the majority of new PCs will be equipped to run multimedia titles.

Why will it be so slow to catch on? While the hardware is relatively easy to manufacture, it will take time to build up a large body of great MPC software titles. Because most MPC titles use sound and animation, and a CD-ROM disc has as much as 650MB of space to fill, creating a top title demands a tremendous amount of creativity. This certainly isn't an impossible task--take a look at Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia from Compton's New Media, Just Grandma and Me from Broderbund, and Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony from Microsoft. But it will be twelve to eighteen months before we'll have 30 to 40 can't-live-without MPC titles.

So should you buy now or wait for more titles? If you wait, the MPC computers and upgrade kits probably will be less expensive, so you may save some money. On the other hand, with an MPC computer, you'll have a sound card for games and future Windows programs. (Just recently, Microsoft announced that Windows 3.1 will include support for sound boards.) You'll also have a CD-ROM drive to use with the growing body of DOS-based CD-ROM software. (Many companies are releasing their most popular DOS software programs in improved CD-ROM versions, including Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Dvorak on Typing, Battle Chess, Loom, and Jones in the Fast Lane. In many cases, the CD-ROM version will sell for less than the original disk-based version.)

But most importantly, you'll be able to run the new MPC titles as they appear during the year. And once you've seen and heard a Multimedia PC, there's no turning back.