Medium Over Message: A CD-ROM Multimedia Bubble Survivor’s Tale

Sometimes in the never-ending progression of technology, people take wrong turns. They pursue dead-ends they believe represent a bright future, often in spite of obvious indications to the contrary. IBM doggedly insisting Micro Channel Architecture was the future of PC hardware, for example, or Nokia’s seeming inability to recognise that the mobile phone experience had changed for ever when the first iPhones and Android devices appeared.

Every once in a while, that collective delusion grips an entire industry. All the players in a particular market nail their colours to a technology, seemingly without heed to what seems with hindsight to have been a completely obvious threat from the alternative that sidelined them. It is a tale of personal experience that prompts this line of thought, for the industry that tempted me away from hardware to a career in electronic publishing in the early 1990s was CD-ROM multimedia.

I Saw The Future, And It Had A Commodore Logo

The Commodore CDTV. Patric Klöter (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.
The Commodore CDTV. Patric Klöter (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

In my final year at university, I saw the future. On a friend’s desk in his dorm room was his computer, and it wasn’t anything like the machines the rest of us had. It was a Commodore CDTV, something like an Amiga 500 with a caddy-loading CD-ROM drive all dressed up to look like a piece of hi-fi. This was one of several products from large manufacturers trying to bring the new technology to market in a proprietary format, other notables included the Philips CDi and the Sony Data Discman.

My friend used his CDTV as an Amiga to do his coursework just as I used my A500, but the real magic came when he put in one of the few multimedia CD-ROMs he had. A world of instant graphical information retrieval sprang into life, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. One of the players in the industry at the time was headquartered in my city, so when after graduating I saw a junior job advert of theirs in the paper I jumped at it.

Did your '90s PC have this logo?
Did your ’90s PC have this logo?

The premise was that CD-ROMs offered the chance to pack in huge amounts of information with high quality pictures, sound, and videos to satisfy the capabilities of the new computers of the day. For most users even the GUI was a very new experience, and their computer showing them multimedia content was mind-blowing. Sound cards and CD-ROM drives became the must-have upgrades for your Windows 3.x PC, and venture-capital-funded companies sprang up left, right, and centre offering all kinds of information and entertainment on CD-ROM.

If Only it Lived Up To The Promise

Hutchinson Encyclopedia, CDTV edition.
Hutchinson Encyclopedia, CDTV edition.

The problems with CD-ROM multimedia titles were many. 650 Mb sounded huge in the floppy era, but it soon became apparent that the limit to how much multimedia you could cram into it was smaller than it seemed. Thus content was highly compressed with proprietary codecs, and instead of rich full-screen video the result was blocky and the size of a matchbox. The end-user’s PC would struggle with playback, as the codecs would join whatever other software their 486 was loaded with in competition for its meagre RAM and processor power. PC manufacturers had started filling machines with dubious pre-installed software, and when 4 Mb of RAM was the norm the bundled CD-ROM encyclopedias were often barely usable. If that wasn’t bad enough, with so many would-be CD-ROM publishers in the market there was a dearth of good content. Huge numbers of poor quality titles were released, with buggy software and sometimes barely enough content to merit a CD-ROM in the first place. These were sold as premium products with high prices, and every customer who was caught by one of them was unlikely to spend again.

Our Nemesis, [Tim Berners-Lee]

Netscape Navigator didn't beat MSIE, but it beat the CD-ROM multimedia business into the dust. (Wikimedia Commons)
Netscape Navigator didn’t beat MSIE, but it beat the CD-ROM multimedia business into the dust. (Wikimedia Commons)

[Tim Berners-Lee] and colleagues published the first web site towards the end of 1990. For several years you might only have encountered the web if you worked in a university, but by the middle of the decade it was within reach of almost any computer owner with a telephone line. Very shortly anyone who wanted to could open a search engine and access information on almost any topic at no extra cost, and the market for CD-ROM products evaporated. A host of small companies went bust, and large publishers everywhere shuttered the CD-ROM divisions they’d been throwing money at only a few years before. Those of us who had worked in the industry saw the discs we’d toiled over selling as dollar specials in supermarkets for a few years, and then by the early 2000s they were gone.

If there is a modern lesson that is as relevant as it should have been to 1990s CD producers, it is that one should never ever confuse the message with the medium. The product was not as it might have seemed the CD-ROMs themselves, but the information they contained. To fully understand this you may have to have seen the feverish excitement when at an early 1990s conference someone produced a gold CD-R, but an entire industry was seduced by those 120mm circles of polycarbonate. The amount of cash that was thrown away by investors paled into insignificance when compared to the dotcom bubble of a few years later, but that seduction still cost a hell of a lot of money. If you are wondering where the relevance is for the hardware engineer in this tale, consider this; [Steve Wozniak] writes in his autobiography of spending part of the early 1970s convinced that the future lay in electronic calculators. Aren’t we lucky his interest eventually shifted to microcomputers instead.

CD-R header image: Ubern00b [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

102 thoughts on “Medium Over Message: A CD-ROM Multimedia Bubble Survivor’s Tale

  1. CD-ROM were and still are highly successful. The ultra-narrow sliver of use cases called “multimedia” failed not because it wasn’t a good medium but rather because they were based on proprietary systems rather than an established standard with well defined requirements. It wasn’t until DVDs that they established a proper standard for multimedia which is still in the process of dying today.

    1. The Multimedia CD-ROM didn’t die because of proprietary formats, but because nobody needed them.

      The whole concept of “multimedia” was just bullshit. It didn’t serve any purpose, because when people needed a dictionary or an encyclopedia, a catalog of some sort, or any sort of information product that used to come in dead tree format – they would sooner pull one out of the bookshelf than boot up a computer and read the same information off of a small flickering fuzzy CRT on a beige box that made horrible noise. It was simply inconvenient and the video clips or sound samples simply didn’t offer any added value.

      The CDTV and CDi products were solutions looking for a problem. The most successful applications were information displays in museums and exhibitions. The actual mutlimedia titles they had were mostly just shitty.

        1. Well Wikipedia HAS sound samples. However, while Encarta etc licensed video clips, Wikipedia isn’t paying. Also there’s a huge chilling effect from MPAA and TV basically failing to recognise any form of fair use and going batshit insane with barrages of lawyers from time to time, over single frames even, never mind short clips. This I think has more to do with no vid clips on Wikipedia. Even such things well known to be in the public domain like Metropolis or early Charlie Chaplin etc, you put a clip or whole piece of that on your site, be prepared, you’ll get DMCA trolled by companies that put it out on DVD compilations in the 90s or 2000s who think they can claim copyright on it. You can ignore them, but then they’ll start firing lawyers letters at your host/ISP and they’ll drop you or take it down just for the quiet life.

          1. If the content was palplaceded — 100% free and clear — into the public domain….Then the DMCA would not apply and the publishers would lose any litigation.

            Now, the only issue here might be is if the copyright holder is contesting that it was not actually in the public domain.
            The problem there is that a DMCA takedown, ec, would not cover that — they would have to file a lawsuit against the group that released into the public domain (before they could file a DMCA takedown).

          2. In any case you’re looking at an army of lawyers and years in court, and millions of dollars wasted to defend yourself against copyright even when it doesn’t apply.

      1. I don’t get these people who say they have to go to the trouble of booting up a computer to do something on it…

        You, you don’t have several computers running round your house that you can just like walk up to and use??? How very odd. :-D

    2. There was a great standard, and it was not proprietary at all. Actually there were two. One was called ‘Windows’, and the other was called ‘CD-i’. Both were very, very well documented…

      ‘Multimedia’ failed for two reasons:

      1. There was no field of ‘User eXperience’ yet. That had to be invented from scratch, and many, many mistakes were made before we started to get it right. E.g. we thought that users would be interested in searching through the user interface and being delighted if the accidentally ‘tripped’ over functionality. How wrong we were! A multimedia title is not a Sierra/LucasArts point&click adventure!
      2. Assets were extremely expensive. Many multimedia titles died a silent death because the negotiations of payment for the right to use photos and videos broke down. Producers had two choices: either increase the price of the cd-rom to heights that no customer wanted to pay, or give up and bin the title before even publishing it. Remember that this was the time that the digital camera was not ubiquitous.

      And I almost forgot that at the time you needed a supercomputer to convert analog video to MPEG, and the digital video cameras of the time did not produce usable video. So that was a huge cost as well.

      It was simply too new and too early. But it paved the way.

  2. In the mid 90’s in southern California, there were computer shows in Pasadena, and others too. I remember going to one that was in a hockey rink in Reseda with a friend. It was during this same era, and I was in my late teens. My friend went to buy hardware, and if I remember right, he was agonizing at the time whether to spend the extra money and get a 3x CD-ROM drive or a 2x. I saw folks running around with 486 boards, stuffing them with memory (8mb!) and the fastest DX2 chips they could get their hands on.

    Among all of these vendors were rows and rows of CD-ROM multimedia titles at seemingly amazing prices. Encyclopedias, games of all types, shareware collections, and more. I purchased a couple of games. One in particular that I was excited about was this funky space racer type game that looked really interesting. When I got home, I tried to play it. The graphics were dismal, and the cut scenes (the “multimedia” part) were a few frames per second. I think He-Man had better animation quality. The game play was horrible and the story line even worse.

    Then there was MS Encarta, a multimedia Encyclopedia that Microsoft produced. It was bundled with Multimedia PC’s, but the videos were awful and the pictures grainy. It was frankly underwhelming and while everyone liked the idea behind it, the execution was not very good.

    It would be several years before such things actually worked as advertised, but it wasn’t on CD. it was on the web.

    1. I actually regretted getting a 4x drive for a year or so, everything on those PC multimedia titles was actually timed to the data rate of a 2x, so it would read a bit, have to do a whole revolution when the buffer filled and then read a bit more… but then the 6x came out and fools rushed to get it and dump their 2x, so I grabbed one dirt cheap for the PC, and gave the 4x to the Amiga… got quite a ways into the Pentium era before they stopped basically syncing on 2x, but some later drives had multispeed capability they would run at 2x when needed…. but yeah, eventually 2x was left behind and I skipped the 8 to a 16x then, which I never really thought a subsequent 24, or even 36x was much faster than.

      1. What was a big problem in the early days of CD-ROM drives running faster than 4x was they would not slow down gracefully for older IDE controllers that couldn’t take data input that fast.

        The drives would spin up to full speed, cram any buffers and caches full, then spin down while the computer sat back and slowly sipped in the load. Most often a “Hey! Wait!” command from the PC would be unable to get through and the read would stop with an error.

        Many fast IDE VLB and PCI cards got sold and installed…

        1. Right, no DMA 16 bit controller on a machine that hadn’t really been tuned right in the beginning and was maybe running the ISA at only 5 or 6 Mhz = dogslow….. worse still if you were using a bare minimum CPU like a 486sx25, with maybe budget 80ns RAM, cache slots empty… ick… yah and compounding all that might be one of those slowass Trident 8800s pretending to be a super VGA.

          1. I was finding those suckers in whitebox pentium and even mmx class machines… Shops that built those should have been tarred and feathered. The general standard of whitebox machines round here was so bad that ATX boards with onboard vid and sound were a huge improvement. They made the nastiest, plastic case proprietary layout, big name boxes look premium.

          2. Oh god, I haven’t thought about those damn Tridents in decades. Remember when there were like 3 different kinds of audio cables for IDE CD-ROMs and your friends computer that you promised to help fix was guaranteed to have the wrong one? I thought I was King Shit for having a SCSI drive running off a Pro Audio Spectrum 16. It even used a caddy for extra pretentiousness points.

          3. Trident, the largest manufacturer of video cards that “didn’t manufacture video cards”. They sold “reference kits” and “samples” by the metric shitton, which other companies soldered together. Nevermind all the FCC-ID numbers on them were registered to Trident Microsystems.
            Very few companies bought the Trident video chips to put onto their own board designs. Why bother when the reference design was as good as it could get?

            I don’t recall which video chip it used, but there was this one model of Tri-Gem PCI card for which Tri-Gem never released drivers for anything past Windows 95a. If you tried to use their driver in Windows 95 OSR2, weird crap would happen like the mouse cursor being restricted to half the screen. Since they’d done a custom BIOS, the reference driver for the chip would not work at all. I figured out how to put together a mix of files from the OEM driver and the reference driver to get it to work in Win 95 OSR2 – then I uploaded it to Driverguide. I got thank you e-mails for that for several years. :)

          4. Remember the S3 ViRGE 3D “decelerator”? Hardware 3D on it was so bad with early drivers that if you had a 486DX, software rendering mode was faster than OpenGL.

            I still have a soft spot for the coulda been a contendah Rendition Verite. When they launched the Verite 1000, it was an amazing, outstanding GPU, faster than anything else and unlike the 3Dfx Voodoo it also did 2D, and did it very well. Unfortunately, in 1997, this upstart called nVidia put out their Riva 128 and Rendition couldn’t catch up due to a bug in their design for the 2100 chip that took them six months to track down. It was an error in a cell library they’d bought from SiArch. Micron bought Rendition, intending to use their GPU tech in a motherboard chipset, with RAM in the GPU. Ultimately, Micron did absolutely nothing with the Rendition IP except for using the name on a line of DRAM for a while.

            I wonder what it would cost to buy that from Micron to open source it for a GPU for single board computers? Port it to current process technology and have extremely tiny GPUs that could be better than what’s being used on them, with no dependence on proprietary code ‘blobs’.

          5. Proprietary-ness was the big problem with those early 3D chipsets. No common API. Voodoo got a slight win by documenting well and being similarish to OpenGL.

  3. This technology defined my childhood, with early music CDs being created around my birth, multimedia discs becoming common around the time I gained the ability to read, type, and play computer games, and dvd video filling my teenage entertainment needs. RIP, optical media. Thanks for being there with me. I’ll always keep a 5.25″ slot open for you.

    1. Heh we could define generations by storage… Physical impression era (Punch cards and vinyl), Magnetic, (tape and floppy) Optical, and Monthly recurring tax, I mean Cloud, Storage as a tax service.

      Won’t ever depend on it myself, one reason, megaupload….. since the FBI has never been properly censured or castigated for their overreach in that case, it’s imminently likely to happen again… “Oh we thought something bad might be happening in parts of it, so we seized the entire data center..”

      Though I’m kinda wondering how long before governments go “Well you know we mirror every byte anyway, why not just cut out the middleman, NSAdrive, fast, convenient and free, at least nobody ELSE will get it.”

  4. So the solution for low quality shovelware was to transition to a medium that was even lower cost to publish on than CD?

    If everything but broadband happened though, I bet people would be happy to go buy Wikipedia on a BDROM.

          1. Honestly though… I still want a CDTV. Still usable as an Amiga computer, and I never did have one of those. Just had a Commodore 128. The only real application for those were video games, and only if you accept that the only good games for them were the old school stuff like lemmings, and never, ever the multimedia garbage!

        1. Nah, I have to be more subtle because I have bleeding heart neighbors. Currently working on a silencer for my pneumatic pellet gun, because they no longer buy my story that it’s a nail gun that I’m firing (for legit projects). Killing squirrels with a pellet gun is actually legal here in NoVa, but that doesn’t stop the damned liberals from making a fuss when I do it. So, using old CDs as a, um, flashy way to simply scare the squirrels off my property has some appeal.

  5. I have a great story for the end of the CD-ROM era for me. If you remember using Macromedia Director you probably remember having to hear/see certain audio/video loops over and over and over to check that your transitions, button placement, scripts, etc were correct. The last project I worked on was an “Interactive!” training CD on how to correctly administer an injection of an expensive new drug. One given mostly to fat, old, white guys. In the ass. Did you know the ass can be divided into 4 quadrants and that you have to choose the correct one to inject? I know this because I had to play that damn loop of that damn guy getting his damn shot in the ass over, and over, and over….

          1. Damned liberal intellectuals always get in the way of progress. Think I’ll write to Trump and suggest that he make mathematical reform a priority to save money by not having to overeducate people.

  6. I made good money doing this for university projects (easy to get grants!) in the ’90s. Macromedia Director made it pretty simple (if sometimes tedious) & fun. I started on the original MacroMind VideoWorks in 1985, doing Mac floppy-based projects for a science museum. Used to attend (and sometimes speak at) the MacroMind Developer Conferences in SF (wistfully holding my now-too-small 1990 t-shirt as I write this). Paid WAY too much money ($8k, if you can believe it) for DVD development software back in the early days. Last “multimedia” project I got paid for was in 2001.

  7. In the city I live almost all electronics (component) stores have vanished.
    Over half of the computer stores have also dissapeared.
    Ironically one of the most successfull pc stores is “cd- rom land” which started not as a pc store but only sold cd’s back then.

    It used to be a shop with the best customer satisfaction and upto a few years ago you always had to stand in line to buy something. The last few times I went there the shop was almost void of customers.

  8. Happy I skipped the Compact Disc step in the storage evolution. I had a few casettes and my parents’ vinyls in the 90s and resisted buying CDs (I remember giving someone my 340MB harddrive to copy an mp3 collection) until just about the time that USB storage made CDs obsolete around 2000-2003 I think. Haven’t had a CD-ROM drive in any of my machines since about that time I think, even my macbook was stripped of the drive even though it had the slot for CDs.

    1. Nope, don’t think it was slightly competitive at all with CDs until mid noughties, say 2005…
      But that’s only a start, for an everyman price on 512MB, to really get convenient you’d want several CDs worth in one, like when the 4GBs got reasonable in 2007.

      Unless you were one of those idiots that crammed 10 of, 56kbit, way downsampled, MP3s on a 16 Megabyte stick in 2000 and claimed you’d replaced the CD then.

  9. (sniff) so my data laserdiscs are dead too?

    I do remember spending over 200quid on a dual speed CD-ROM drive, and then being stunned by the 7th Guest in umm, 1993.

    We had a Kodak cdwriter at work for source backup too. Iirc, that was SCSI and over 2000quid to buy…

    1. I worked with a mastering drive, encoder was an 8U box, drive controlled via SCSI I think, but data over coax direct from the encoder. Wonderfully temperamental bit of kit. Cost several £k, Burnt at 1x, picky about the golds it took, but could burn a gold that would fool some drives it was a stamped silver.
      We had a few spare drives in a cupboard, and every now and then someone would be caught saying “we should chuck these old 1x burners, we’ve all got 32x. Now…” … probably should have labelled them better!

    2. We had one at the university and I could sometimes use it. But it was always an adventure. CD burning was not that reliable, “burn-proof” was not yet invented and the buffer underrun your worst enemy, with prices for blanks in the range of $/€20,- for ONE!

  10. Where the medium did threaten to come alive and make sense was the sucessor to the cdtv, the cd32 with the disc being used to deliver more content during gameplay rather than a plain multimedia title. I rather like my cd32 and play it now and again, and the very few titles that weren’t just rebadged amiga 500 titles and actually had more content on the cd showed the shape of things to come.
    Of course by then commodore had blown their budget and it never really had a chance in the US market, but I’m sure you’ve got a co-worker or two who is better placed for all that historical…

  11. Re: [Steve Wozniak] writes in his autobiography of spending part of the early 1970s convinced that the future lay in electronic calculators. Aren’t we lucky his interest eventually shifted to microcomputers instead.

    In a sense the Woz was right. The Intel 4004 was developed for a proposed calculator project and only offered for more general purpose use when that contract fell through. This led directly to the 8008 and 8080 and then indirectly the Z80, as well as inspiring competitors like the 1802 and 6502. So the future actually did start with calculators.

    1. Remember he owned a programmable calculator…. I think he was expecting CRT VDUs to remain too expensive for most applications and that hobbyists, scientists and engineers would be happy with single line displays… Then TV typewriters happened.

      The small electronic calculators were causing a revolution of their own at that time though. Scientists and mathematicians could bang through a load of iterative calculations in an afternoon and get new senses of how things worked, rather than getting bogged down in paper and slide rule over days and losing interest, or forgetting where they were going. For example Feigenbaum…

      However, while that revolution was still happening, a bigger one started. The engine of the first calculators became the engine of desktop/home computing much as the engine of the automobile became the engine of aircraft.

  12. Remember Steve Wozniak’s universal infrared remote? IIRC it copied commands for several analog IR systems, which are un-learnable by later learning universal remotes that can only work with digital control schemes.

  13. Weird–was just reading about this. Jimmy Maher, “The Digital Antiquarian”, had just recently written a long retrospective on CD-ROM and all the other attempts at multimedia:

    While this focuses on the what was actually squeezed onto the CD-ROM format, the Antiquarian article is on the long, expensive attempts at the competitors to Microsoft’s CD-ROM push: Phillips’s CD-I format, the DVI format which threw Phillips into a deadly panic, and all the ensuing delays that doomed the custom hardware players from ever being popular in the home. All while humble CD-ROM just quietly got better (or at least less horrible) on everybody’s home computers.

  14. Video CD’s were widely popular in Asia in the 90s, similar as the VHS tape was in the west. In China, any movie could be had on VCD format long before DVD arrived. CDi machines could play them as well as a variety of stand alone VCD players. CDi (interactive multimedia) was not very popular, but VCD’s used the CDi format. 386/486-class machines could not play them unless you had an mpeg card and a good CDROM drive that could play mode2 form2 discs. Mpeg cards were also quite expensive at the time. Later some processors had mpeg-1 capabilities built in (for example the MediaGX). It really wasn’t until PC’s could decode mpeg4 (pentium-2 class and above) that you would see embedded video on a web page (or web based multimedia). There were few web sites that served up realplayer and quick time beta video clips, but the resolution and quality was abysmal. But PC hardware and broadband matured rapidly, and sites like YouTube (and others based on Adobe Flash) came into existence. The rest is history.

  15. Media evolves quickly. At one company I was with the early instruments source code was stored on 51/4 and 8″ floppies from Xerox CPM machines used in development. We made the switch to IBM’s (AT’s) and warehoused the Xerox’s. Unknown to us someone in the company sold them for surplus. Then a customer wanted the software on all their instruments updated (a dozen 2716 eproms per machine). Pulls the source floppies out of storage and go look for the machines, gone! Turns out the person that bought the machines had set up a data transfer business with all these now vintage machines connected by serial ports. We paid him his fee to make the transfer.

    1. I had a Xerox 820-II Information Processor. Note the lack of any use of the word “computer”. Apparently after the Alto and STAR that Xerox failed to see any real use for and failed to market properly, Xerox didn’t want to be involved with “computers”.

      It was a pretty solid machine. The keyboard could have been considered a deadly weapon due to its size and mass, and it along with the floppy drives and Diablo 630 printer connected via heavily shielded, round cables full of individual wires. Like an iMac – extra chunky style. Slightly newer versions had a lighter keyboard, more like an IBM Model M.

      Mostly I used it with WordStar and some text only BASIC games like Super Star Trek and Trade Wars. No graphics capability at all. :(

      I did a couple of minor hacks to upgrade to dual sided 360K drives and brought out the internal parallel port for a dot matrix printer. Floppy hack was just switching one redundant ground wire at both ends of the round cable to the side select locations. Yes, Xerox was that penny pinching to where a cable ordered with single sided drives had one less wire in it. Would be interesting to know how much higher the price was for the double sided drive cable. If only their customers knew the difference was a single wire.

  16. My first experience with the WWW was CompuServe’s “internet gateway”… it took over half an hour to load the page. I knew then that there was no future in this “World Wide Web” and went directly back to the BBS I ran.

    1. I thought it was insane that The Source, Compuserv etc charged higher per minute prices for faster modems when users with a faster link would be able to log on, find and download what they wanted in less time, then log off – freeing up a connection quicker for another paying customer.

  17. I can remember when computer magazines would give away cover CD’s which contained a fair portion of the internet, downloaded over the office ISDN connection for your convenience to browse without owning a modem.

    The whole “multimedia” thing was a narrow niche and died because there wasn’t much you could do with it beyond the encyclopaedias. Plenty of stuff made good use of the CD-ROM for a decade, but doesn’t fall into that definition – games on CD-ROM added a shitload of music & graphics & levels etc. they’d never have been able to in the past. A good trick they worked out was they could just record the game music as a CD track and then play it direct from the drive at full quality with zero CPU or memory overhead.

    CD-ROMs lived on for a decade for software and games, and stuff like clipart, font, and photo collections – plus the ubiquitous cover CD on magazines and “free internet” CDs that define a certain era. DVD’s came along for video, we had audio CD’s (as most computers would struggle to play full quality MP3’s or video) and then the internet shat on the “multimedia” encyclopaedia niche.

    1. I was still buying the odd magazine for its cover CD into the 2000s… Every so often they would have a good utility collection with system tools virus checkers etc updates.. I think what killed that for me was when I finally got my own burner.

      Also was good for the odd hot new demo, when they were becoming huge, and servers would be overloaded for weeks.

    2. One magazine I bought just for the cover CD was an issue of PC Gamer that included full versions of several old DOS games, and if they had any protections, they were already “cracked” by their original publisher. Star Control 2 still asked for stuff from the manual, which was included as a PDF along with the maps, but you could just hit enter.

      PC Gamer Classic Games Collection included full versions of
      1. Star Control II
      2. Descent
      3. Battlecruiser 3000AD
      4. Betrayal at Krondor
      5. Red Baron
      6. ZORK 1, 2, 3.

      There was another PC Gamer Classic Games Collection CD with full versions of
      1. Road & Track Presents: The Need for Speed
      2. Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
      3. Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
      4. The Secret of Monkey Island
      5. Links: The Challenge of Golf
      6. X-COM: UFO Defense
      7. Wing Commander
      8. Alone in the Dark
      9. Terminal Velocity
      10. Duke Nukem II
      11. King’s Quest
      12. Descent

  18. You lucky US folks who had flatrates back then would never understand the struggle, but the most i got out of CDs in the 90s was a steady supply of shareware games from Topware and others because using the phone line was expensive as f*ck back then here in Germany.

    1. Bullshit!

      The US is a big place, much more spread out than Europe. Sure, those lucky folks who lived in big cities had local access number for internet service. For the rest of us it was by the minute charges too. There probably only were 4 or 5 thousand people and no internet providers in the whole area I was able to call for most of that period. It only seemed to the world like we had easy internet access because pretty much all media comes from the big cities. Nobody was talking about the rest of us. Are you really going to tell me that people in Berlin, London, Paris, etc… had to dial long distance to get internet?

      We did eventually start getting better deals, we could pay a reasonable flat-rate to make the whole nation ‘local’ but that only came into existence a year or two before broadband. Actually.. it probably only felt that way because I wasn’t from a big city. Broadband probably came before nation-wide calling plans in the cities.

      1. There was no internet access available to me until 1996. I got Juno e-mail when it had a toll free number, then they quit that. Then they let my account get hacked and the hacker changed my password – then the company had the gall to expect me to pay to get it fixed.

        So April 4th, 1996, I went downtown to the new ISP and signed up for dialup. 14.4K!

      2. I remember, my town had two… That’s right, TWO computers, a 386 and a 486, attached by ThickNet coax in the city office building. This was in early 1997. We didn’t even have internet access in 1996. In late 1996, my high school (a town away from where I lived) got a few internet attached computers. That town was about 4 times larger, and less out in the boondocks, so they got dialup first. Where I lived, the local library got two computers hooked up in late 1997. City offices closed their public computer access once the library got hooked up… Still two public computers in the whole town for a while. FINALLY, an ISP made local dial up service available in late 1997. At first there were 4 lines… Yeah… 4 people in a town of 3500 could be online at once. By the next year, it was up to 10 lines, and later in 1998 it was up to around 20 lines. It wasn’t until late 1999 that you could actually use internet without waiting for a line to open up.

        As for my very first experience online… That would have been America Online, in 1994, on a Macintosh Performa 550, running at 33 MHz, with 5 MB RAM, a 160 MB hard drive, using a 2400 baud modem. Top tech, ehh! We didn’t quite get the whole phone access thing. Yeah, we canceled it real fast once we got the $300 phone bill! By the time we got the first bill, another $200 was on the second bill! Ouch!

        I remember in 1999, in college, I used to use some pre-dot com bubble burst ad revenue thing called All Advantage. They had a small app that put advertising banners, and they’d cut you a check for letting it run. The catch, you had to actually be using the computer. It only counted time if pages were being periodically loaded, and there was mouse motion or key action within a minute. I also ran on a Mac, and the first software that came out was PC only… I kid you not, I’d load a Windows 98 emulator on my Mac, run explorer on Windows, on my Mac, and I set up three different unlisted pages on my website that would wait 20-30 seconds, then auto load the next page. I took the eject mechanism motor from a spare mac floppy drive and drilled a hole int he cam. bent a wire and stuck in the hole on the cam, and let the other end stick in the crevasse between he mouse button and the shell. put some books to keep the mouse from going off the table, and set the screen to not sleep… then shut off my monitor and went to classes! By the time I got home, It’d typically have succeeded in racking up about 1/3 to 1/2 of the allowable monthly “viewing” hours count. I used to pay for my internet access back in college that way! XD

        I was SO GRATEFUL for finally getting 1 Mb broadband in 2001.

      3. Well, i remember that a T1 flatrate line was a big thing back then and a T50 was the holy US grail whispered about in BBSes and on IRC. Thats what we thought US kids used while we Germans where limited to 28.8k in 1995 and later 56kflex, unless you got ISDN with 64k. Or double the line and double the cost and get 128k. ;)

        Got my first modem based analogue flatrate middle of, IIRC, 1998 for ~80 DM, before that it was 6 long years of minute based Internet. And my first taste of broadband was ~2000 with 768k DSL with the big foot-warmer from the Deutsche Telekom. In times where sites where still optimized for modem usage, that was blazingly fast.

      4. In the city/suburbs (at least Chicago land in mid-late 90s local calls were charged by the minute too. We got an eye-popping phone bill the first month of having an internet account. There was a trick though; you could call up the phone company and buy “call packs” (IIRC this was little-known and the phone company didn’t want to advertise these existed) – basically you prepaid for the first 100 or etc. local calls for the month , use em or lose em, but they were flatrate and not per-minute.

  19. The Multimedia PC didn’t die. It Evolved!

    Maybe I would feel differently if I had been a multi-media CD author back in the day who lost his shirt or even if I had been one of those well-off consumers that spent hundreds on some proprietary playback device. But… I never saw the Multimedia PC as having died at all. It just changed format from CD-ROM to Internet and is in the process of switching from desktop to handheld device.

    Seriously, remember computers before the “Multimedia PC”? I guess you had the “Sound Thing” for games and some graphics modes. It was the trio of CD-ROM, Soundcard and VGA monitor that made the Multimedia PC and without that and the content those CD-ROM peddlers exposed us to I’m sure the internet would have evolved differently. At the very least it would have remained mostly text for a longer period and streaming would have been slower to develop. I always thought that the internet IS the Multimedia PC. It’s only a business model that died.

    Thinking about this makes me a bit nostalgic. I remember being excited to download the latest version of Real Player on a 33.6k phone line. I remember seeing TV stations from other parts of the world stream via that format and it was actually ‘watchable’. I remember online radio stations popping up that were actually high enough quality I could enjoy listening to them. I remember being shocked I could get almost ‘CD Quality’ stereo over a phone line! (only on a very good day). I remember hooking my desktop computer to my stereo back when nobody I knew even thought about that. Yes, I remember downloading mp3s off of ftp sites with no special tools other than Lycos, Yahoo and a web browser. This was when most people my age spent the majority of their spending money on overpriced CDs. I knew several kids with jobs but never a dime to their name because they bought collections of 100s of CDs.

    Today we have way more content and way better quality. It’s great, I’m not complaining but these days finding out that something is available on YouTube is about as exciting as finding out you can get a hamburger at McDonalds. Where do we go to get that old new frontier feeling?

      1. Commodore was already bankrupt before A1200 was even released. You could even argue release of AGA Amigas was an accident that barely slipped under Mehdi cost cutting measures. First order of business in 1989 by new CEO Mehdi was defunding R&D.

  20. “Sometimes in the never-ending progression of technology, people take wrong turns. They pursue dead-ends they believe represent a bright future, often in spite of obvious indications to the contrary. …”

    That might be true in SOME cases but mostly the failure to follow the right path into the (technology) future is the direct result of the success of the current (soon outdated) technology and the fact that stake- and shareholders have a fear of the unknown (the disruptive technology which will soon make the established one obsolete) and a focus on short-term results. At least this is the conclusion of Clayton M. Christensen in “The Innovator’s Dilemma”… Data storage is actually one of the technologies he researched for his book – which is actually quite interesting to read, even for “techies” and crafters.

  21. I don’t think there are that many companies or people that didn’t see the end of multimedia CD-rom coming when the internet came around. Sure, some were caught off guard, but the vast majority just switched to new ventures when profit models changed. My current workplace is filled with people who used to work for a company building Optical Media production machines (CD and DVD presses basically). Many of those companies actually had a business plan when Blu-ray was still a pipedream saying “The total global market for production machines will be X tools over Y customers, we’ll get 60% marketshare at most, so we need to have our pockets filled when we hit 0.60*X tools”. And that prediction came out pretty much exactly. And when they hit their target they looked at the next gen and decided if they would go on or not. Most made the switch from CD to DVD. Some made the switch from DVD to Blu-ray. My co-workers know of no company working on Optical Media that made a gamble on any successor technology. Pretty much all of them have shut down. Any producer of Optical Media has bought all the tools they will ever use so the market for production tools is mostly dead.

  22. My first job as a programmer was at a small company that produced CD-i software called Codim. I have great memories of that time but once I got to know the system I knew it was pretty much doomed, because it was locked down for compatibility: All CD-i discs were supposed to play on all CD-i players, so there was never going to be an updated CD-i player with a faster CD drive (1x was the norm), more memory, or a hard disk or floppy drive (though there were “professional” players that had those, mostly for development).

    The CD-i standard was the “Green Book” by Philips (and Sony) and it was difficult to read. It was a closed standard (NDA and license required, very expensive).

    CD-i hardware wasn’t very powerful either: Discs that didn’t require the Full Motion Video cartridge (MPEG 1 audio/video decoder) could only play video in a small window on the screen. It was good enough for educational titles and strategy games, but there are only a few action games and out of those, only a few were really good. I didn’t work on any of those; I was in charge of creating a number of educational discs called Vapro and I quit the job because after a year or so, I had automated pretty much everything so the job became pretty boring: We would get a bunch of pre-encoded audio and video files and a Word document in RTF format that had annotations about when to play what audio/video, and all I had to do was run a script that parsed the Word document, put it all together and built a disc image.

    I also worked on Background Music (BGM): Until they were competed out of business by Muzak, Philips produced about 10 discs of background music per month, with 4 to 8 hours of mono ADPCM-compressed music on them. They made a special Background Music player (BMS-3000) that looked like a regular CD player but with a caddy for the discs, and with connections for a 100V PA system. It took an entire day per disc to produce them on a fast 80386 computer: transfer audio to hard disk from a DAT tape via an expensive real-time ADPCM encoder card by Sony, demultiplex the audio into two mono tracks, then remultiplex everything back together. It would take maybe half an hour to do all the non-realtime processing today…


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