How The CD-ROM Lost The Multimedia Dream To The Internet

High-tech movie guides on CD-ROM; clearly the future had arrived in 1994.
High-tech movie guides on CD-ROM; clearly the future had arrived in 1994.

In the innocent days of the early 90s the future of personal computing still seemed to be wide open, with pundits making various statements regarding tis potential trajectories. To many, the internet and especially the World Wide Web didn’t seem to be of any major significance, as it didn’t have the reach or bandwidth for the Hot New Thingtm in the world of PCs: multimedia. Enter the CD-ROM, which since its introduction in 1985 had brought the tantalizing feature of seemingly near-infinite storage within reach, and became cheap enough for many in the early 90s. In a recent article by [Harry McCracken] he reflects on this era, and how before long it became clear that it was merely a bubble.

Of course, there was a lot of good in CD-ROMs, especially when considering having access to something like Encarta before Wikipedia and broadband internet was a thing. It also enabled software titles to be distributed without the restrictions of floppy disks. We fondly remember installing Windows 95 (without Internet Explorer) off 13 1.44 MB floppies, followed by a few buckets of Microsoft Office floppies. All pray to the computer gods for no sudden unreadable floppy.

Inevitably, there was a lot of shovelware on CD-ROMs, and after the usefulness of getting free AOL floppies (which you could rewrite), the read-only CD-ROMs you got in every magazine and spam mailing were a big disappointment. Although CD-ROMs and DVDs still serve a purpose today, it’s clear that along with the collapse of the Internet Bubble of the late 90s, early 2000s, optical media has found a much happier place. It’s still hard to beat the sheer value of using CD-R(W)s and DVD-/+R(W)s (and BD-Rs) for offline backups, even if for games and multimedia they do not appear to be relevant any more.

If you’re interested in another depiction of this period, it’s somewhere we’ve been before.

72 thoughts on “How The CD-ROM Lost The Multimedia Dream To The Internet

      1. WTF are you guys on about.

        There were 3 star wars movies, one holiday special.

        LALALALALALALALALALA, plugs ears.

        One Matrix movie!
        No hacks ever had the nerve to remake Hitchcock.
        Ewe Boll makes better movies then JJ Abrams!

  1. The 7th Guest was also one of the first games to only be released on cdrom – the (low quality, but still amazing for the time) videos that helped the story unfold were only possible on optical media.

  2. Another major bebefit to CDs: they offer 16-bit lossless audio without DRM. These qualities can be hard to find via online musoc stores, let alone streaming platforms.

    1. What they also contain is extra data. Little album pictures and song texts (lyrics) for karaoke.
      Some higher-end CD players of the 90s could read that hidden data.
      I think the CD32 and various CD-i players, maybe the 3DO as, well.
      The technology was being more popular in Japan, I assume.
      Still, many Audio CDs do silently have such extra data.

    2. The reason I stopped buying some artists was fact they put warning I my not be able to listen it on my PC.

      I also remeber once my father bought an album that was advertised as impossible to be copied. In fact there was no protection at all.

    3. Are today’s Audio “Discs” RedBook CDs again?
      I know there was a period where many Audio “Discs” were in fact not “Audio CDs” because they didn’t adhere to the standard as a type of copy protection.

    1. i did use them to make copies of my games though. on the grounds that i could keep the original safe in its case, and use the burned copy. if it got damaged id just burn another. some games i did this 4 or 5 times. so i never really trusted it for backing up my data.

    2. Burned CDs and DVDs are crap wrt long term stability that after losing so many of them I stopped using them completely well over 15 years ago. They were branded ones, well kept vertical in their case on a CD shelf, no moisture, no weights, no sunlight, no excessive temperatures, nothing, yet about 30% of them became unreadable after 3-5 years. I completely lost work projects of which I had multiple copies, all on CDs unfortunately, so I backed up on multiple hard drives what i could still read using various CD/DVD drives on different PCs and then removed all drives from all machines.

      1. I went through the same thing. Once I lost faith in the media I recovered as much as I could to USB hard drives and then duplicated the files on another USB hard drive. I periodically run a file compare as a quality check, so far no problems. No more CD / DVDs for me and hopefully this will inspire others to check their backups on optical media.

      2. We’ve all heard these stories by now..then we compare to the CD ROM games in our collections that have lasted for 2 decades or’s all down to the quality or rather lack of quality with the aftermarket plastic bulk Disk packs and sub par Laser writers..can’t beat the professional media

        1. Printed discs are fine, the problem lies in W/RW ones which are unreliable and lose their data over time. Bulk writable discs are even less reliable, but branded ones still suffer from the problem. They simply can’t be trusted for data backups.

      3. I was one of the first ones here burning CDs in the 90s. I have found zero broken/unreadable discs so far from my collection, not in data nor audio discs. I used whatever discs that were available, bulk discs and branded ones. I often burned on slow speed, even when fast and ultra fast burners came available, but I also burned sometimes fast. Zero problems so far reading any of them.

    3. There’s the optical M-Discs that are specifically designed to be stable long term, but those are expensive enough that you’d need to be pretty dedicated in your desire for a sturdy archive to get them.

  3. I wouldn’t exactly call it a bubble it’s a near dead media format that has outlasted many other media formats (and yea I still occasionally buy video on optical disk… with 2 little kids in the house it’d handy to have just incase 2 birds happen to f**k on the fiber optic on Tuesday afternoon and the feels like temp outside is 47c with a RH of 89%)

    1. BD is still relevant, though. Streaming is nowhere near in terms of quality.
      Also, a physical medium can’t be taken away from us. Online services only last an blink of an eye.

        1. It depends, I tjink. Physical BD players don’t need an internet connection to update.
          They may check for a black list on BDs, though. So they could get blocked if they find themself listed on recent BDs.
          Software BD players require online updates to play latest BDs, though.
          DVDs don’t have this situation.

    1. That’s a bummer. My CD-Rs from 2005 are still readable. I guess storage is a factor, too.
      I stored them in a jewel case, each. The jewel cases themselves are in the attic.
      Stored away in cardboard boxes filled with news papers..

      1. So… my company did some research on this…

        The technology of CD-Rs changed over the years, and the earlier ones were more reliable. You could buy “medical grade” CD-Rs which lasted a lot better. Cheap ones near the end of the technology could lose their data in as little as a couple of years.

    2. There are many factors that can influence optical media longevity, but quality of manufacturing is definitely a major one. I have onced bought in emergency some cheap DVD-RW from an unknown brand (Intenso), and only 1 year later, the recording layer was literally pelling off the surface of the disc, like if there was no protective layer upon it!
      Also got some LG branded BD-RE that were simply impossible to burn despite being brand new (they all failed whatever i tried, and were not possible to erase). There was a visible big oxydation stain on the layer of all of them.
      At the same time i have a lot of Verbatim or Pioneer CD/DVD burnt 15/20/25 years ago and still perfectly readable (well, can’t certify there are no errors somewhere on some).

    3. It varies incredibly wildly. I bought an audio CD (local artist, so genuine reason for CD-R) in the late ’90s that was unusable within a year. I also still have Kodak-branded gold CD-Rs I burned in 1994 that were readable 6 months or so ago.

  4. Pressed CDs are great, burned CDs are garbage. Lost SO much data learning this sad fact.

    Physical media may not die just yet however. After all, the cloud giveth, and the cloud taketh away.

  5. What’s missing here: PC Magazines still exist in 2024 and come bundled with DVDs.
    So it’s not a dead technology yet, even if most online users aren’t willing to invest in an optical drive anymore.

    Also, “shovelware” CDs (aka shareware CDs) did also feature lots of pictures and music, not just software.
    They had contained hi-res pictures in BMP, PCX or Targa TGA format, as well as GIF for platform-independence.

    Music usually was in MOD format (Amiga tracker) or MIDI format, sometimes WAVE as well.
    Sound effects usually had been in VOC format, or WAVE.

    Video clips were usually in Video for Windows (AVI), QuickTime (MOV) and Flick (FLI/FLC) format.
    MPEG-1 was lesser being used, generally speaking. That’s what Video CD and CD-i were for.

  6. I can’t think of a reason for using optical media anymore, even though I still have cd/dvd/blu-ray r/w drives and media available. The data I backup is currently ~1.8Tb in size. That is a lot of DVDs, and quite a few blu-ray disks. I simply use 4TB+ portable HDD USB 3.0 drives. Manageable and relatively cheap. My idea is to keep all data I want spinning (so to speak, as all data is now on SSDs) and just rotate backup drives thru the years (on site and off site). That way the backup media always stays current and fresh, and the data is always available when I need it. Disk space is really quite ‘cheap’ now, so no reason to archive to read-only disks (unless your truck still has a CD player for example). And if you think about it, most of the data we hold onto is going to be round filed when we leave this life anyway, so don’t need to ‘last’ for 50 years or more. Cold hard truth… Not a gamer BTW other than an occasional say Super Tux Cart or Chess once in awhile.

    1. ” And if you think about it, most of the data we hold onto is going to be round filed when we leave this life anyway, so don’t need to ‘last’ for 50 years or more. Cold hard truth… Not a gamer BTW other than an occasional say Super Tux Cart or Chess once in awhile. ”

      It depends. Could be that you have specific software in your storage that’s no longer available publicly on a server.
      Be it a copy of a floppy image, an old interim release of an application, a collection of pictures from deviantart or other site. A comic strip etc.

      In these modern days we always think that everything will be available online forever, but that’s an illusion.
      YouTube channels come and go, streaming platforms, too.
      Never underestimate the value of a private backup.

      Back in the 80s and 90s, we did spend little thought on our VHS recordings or audio recordings from cassette radio.
      Nowadays, however, these things are being sought after. Such things are a time capsule, a treasure chest.

      Same goes for old books and floppy disks, by the way.
      In the vintage computing scene, people try to find long lost treasures on floppies found at the flea markets or yard sales.

      Same could be happen with “historic” USB 3.x HDDs from early 21th century.
      Someone in 2100 might find your HDD and try to recover files why day dreaming about how you lived your live back in your days. You never know. 🤷‍♂️

        1. I have entire collection of his “fun time”.
          Used it countless times to have fun online – like flooding a beekeeping forum with 20k posts.

          As for: “someone in 2100 might find your HDD and try to recover files”.
          Unlikely to happen as entire drive is VeraCrypted.

    2. Hard drives are absolutely not considered as archival media. The longevity of magnetism is absolutely unknown and greetly deepends on the technology used by each manufacturer. When a HDD is powered on, and idled, it actively reads and rewrites data to rejuvenate the magnetization. When stored it obvisouly can’t do that. You can also have problem with stuck mechanical parts if they stay too long stored. Of course they are example of very old HDD that still can start and spit data correctly, but they were made with simpler technology and very much lower data densities than now, so it is not in any way a guarantee that nowadays HDD will be readable in 5/10/20 years.

      The same applies to flash memory type of storages: USB keys, memory cards, SSD drives… Except that instead of magnetization state of a surface, data are stored in the form of electrical charges whose longevity is also unknown, also with different technologies used.

      There are considerable amounts of data archived on HDD in data centers/”The cloud”, but in always powered on RAID arrays, cold “hot storage”. Otherwise, they are stored on magnetic tapes like LTO in robotic libraries, which is nowadays considered like the most reliable and long quite long term storage media. But not so long either, because the weak point here is mostly the reader. In 20 years, finding a working one, with the suitable interface still available on computers, with compatible drivers and software for the future OSes… all this can be really difficult. And even if new models are still developped, they are NOT universaly backward compatible with older media. For LTO, it used to be 2 generation back (LTO-5 could read LTO-4 and 3, but not 2 and 1), but now it is only 1 generation.

      Optical media from reputable brands have prooved to be quite reliable in the long term. M-Disc are supposed to be even more durable (but we have to wait to confirm that). Glass media are also supposed to be very durable, but quite expensive and infrequently used. And no one knows if you will still be able to connect a working reader on your computer in 10/20 years from now.

      So in reality, no serious archiving plan should rely on the supposed longevity of any media. Common practice is to copy all data onto brand new latest generation of any media every more or less 3 years.

      One additional note: in moving picture industry, even today, the most reliable and high quality preservation media still is film! Latest generation of emulsions on polyester base is very reliable (probably more than 100 years), and can store high level of details. So it is considered better to “flash” even fully digitally produced movies back to film to store them, and later scan them again with latest available technologies, not relying on any kind of media nor any codec.

      1. I agree. That is why my HDD media is ‘cycled’ and not intended to be put in ‘cold’ storage for years. All data is keep spinning on my home server, so ‘archive’ is just a backup if ever a disaster strikes. Backups are not for ‘long’ term.

        Always special cases. But for me, my method ‘works’.

  7. > remember installing Windows 95 … off 13 1.44 MB floppies

    Pretty sure there never was a version on 1,44MiB(!) floppies.

    When I copied a friends Win 95 CD to a set of floppies I had to re-format them to/with the DMF[1] (1680 or 1720 KiB) to fit every single CAB file on a single floppy each (the cabs were to large for a “normal” floppy).



    1. “When I copied a friends Win 95 CD [..]”

      The whole thing? The Win95 floppy edition was stripped!
      It did merely contain basic installation. The multimedia files and many of the drivers were not included.

      You’re right about compression, though.
      The physical floppies were ordinary 1,44 MB models, but had probably being formatted as 1,6MB or more.
      There had been special utilities in the 90s that allowed this.

      1. Indeed. I remember the Win95 floppy edition, it was a pre-release of Win95 given away in limited numbers IIRC. And yes, it was stripped down and Explorer was very buggy.

      2. Dunno how much of the “whole thing” but it consisted of ~28 floppies.
        One for each of the 25 “” files with XY=[03,….,27] (size=1.716.224 bytes each) and a few more for the rest (boot, PRECOPY*.cab, remaining “win95_*.cab”).

        Used those floppies to install Win95 on a Toshiba 486 laptop with 8MiBs of RAM I think (4 internally + 4 on an PCMCIA similar card).

      3. Netmare 2 for the win.

        IIRC it was about 15 360K floppies. Plus one from each hardware component vendor.
        It needed each one about 3 times to link the system. Hours long meditation on why Utah is the worst state.

        The first thing you did after bringing up a server was copy the install media to subdirectories.

        Then link/bring up a second server and again copy.
        Somebody had to have done the floppy thing.
        Once, if you were careful and didn’t care about using the same key on two servers that weren’t going to be up at the same time.
        You had to repeat the process for every hardware change.

        IIRC you could add a drive, but not a controller without regening sys.
        My wetware garbage collection is broken, so much useless obsolete technical crap.

        Somebody asked me to fix a Netmare 2 server in 2024 and I’d kick ’em square in the balls, no words.
        I shot the last drives I had with ‘that’ on them. Felt good.

    1. Yes! :D We had the Kodak Photo CD Sampler CD-ROM at home.
      The sample pictures were great. Parrots, airplanes etc. :)

      What’s funny, though. Photo CD was very high-res.
      The pictures were stored multiple times, from thumbnail to poster size and beyond.
      Maximum resolution was 2048×3072 pixels (16 Base) for consumers and 4096×6144 pixels (64 Base) professional users.

      Not bad for a technology from 1991!

    2. I still have my Apple PowerCD, which was a portable CD player that also functioned as an external 1.5x SCSI CD-ROM drive and a standalone PhotoCD player (it had a S-Video output).

      I last used it to help get some usable software into my half-working, 1996, PowerBook 1400 about 2 years back.

  8. Optical media is pretty poor for backups. Capacity is low, and it’s very slow. You can’t backup a meaningful amount of data without an automatic changer, which is a whole other hassle.

    Backups to tape (cheap and large capacity but slow) work

    But for most people HDD are much better. Large capacity, fast, and longevity beats most writable – let alone rewritable – optical media.

    1. I secured my CD and DVD backups from the noughts long ago, all onto the NAS where i sorted trough them what i still need. Lets just say i still have my first honest, as honest as a 10 year old kiddo could back then, game from the start of the 90s that i wrote in QBasic.
      Some basic RPG battle system resembling the Barcode Battler, bad spaghetti code but i was proud of my work back then.

    1. I still have MS version of “maps” somewhere.
      I think I was planning to use it with a GPS unit that did not have maps incorporated in it.

  9. “the read-only CD-ROMs you got in every magazine and spam mailing were a big disappointment.”
    All CD-ROMs are “read-only”. It’s what the RO in ROM stands for. And they weren’t always disappointments. I have fond memories of free shareware and demo games from those included CD-ROMs. I remember demos of Tonic trouble, Broken Sword 2, Roller coaster Tycoon and Worms.

  10. As a millennial in Germany i was thankful for all those shovelware shareware discs. Internet was expensive AF most of the 90s over here and i still have my collection from back then.

    First with dads PC and floppy assisted sneakernet and after i got my own 4x CD-ROM drive i was in wonderland.
    Every time we went to our local Computermesse, for those from the Region it was the Dampfbierbrauerrei in Essen Borbeck, i went out with at least one shiny new silver disc full of adventure and fun. Good times! ❤️

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