COMDEX Preview of Multimedia 1995

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The Fall COMDEX '94 conference and exhibit in Las Vegas was more of a winter show, not only because of the calendar (it's always the week before Thanksgiving) but also because of the Chicago-like weather.

But the 200,000 visitors and the 2,000+ exhibitors were certainly warming up for 1995. This is the best forum to find out what will be the most dominant products during the following year. I spent most of the five days checking out CD-ROM hardware, software, and applications, and at COMDEX, CD-ROM spelled multimedia.

Just as five days were not enough to see, hear, and touch everything, a single column is not enough to report about all that will influence the multimedia marketplace. In this issue I'll give just a broad overview of the major multimedia trends, and later I will discuss the most interesting products and services.

Hardware

The primary question is whether the IBM platform will continue to dominate the multimedia market or will Apple be able to cut itself a larger slice of the pie. Despite Apple's successful past few months with its Quadra AV and Performa lines, 65-70% of the CD-ROM applications still remain IBM-only. This is true even though Apple is much ahead of IBM with its PowerPC machines. However, impressive as they were in the special PowerPC tent, they were also expensive. There will be few applications ported or developed from the ground up for this new processor in 1995.

Within the Intel platform, the Pentium PCs will be the favorite, performing 40-60% better than the high-end 486DX2's, but selling for only 15-20% higher. The 90 MHz Pentium seems to be the best choice for those who are about to join the multimedia bandwagon. Its performance will be very welcome for video decompression, and its preferred bus architecture (Intel's PCI) will beat the favorite of last year, the VESA Local (VL) Bus alternative. The reason is lower price and better adaptability for the coming plug-and-play technology and devices, as well as absolute standardization.

Surprisingly, there seems to be a detour from the SCSI controllers route, and the preferred choice of PC manufacturers will be a familiar face with a little plastic surgery: the enhanced IDE, both for hard drives and for CD-ROMs. It tells you something when the best SCSI controller manufacturer, Future Domain, announces full-fledged commitment for IDE developments. I think that manufacturers who check the costs of their support services are turning away from VLB and SCSI technology for the same reason: lack of genuine standardization. Proprietary VL buses and incomplete compliance with SCSI specifications cause a lot of incompatibility problems and system freezing.

In the video arena there are more and more applications that, although they can run on 8-bit (256-color) systems, are recommended for use on 24-bit (true-color) systems. Seeing the difference, I could understand why. Though these controllers cost between $400-500, they are much less expensive when built into a well-endowed $3,000 Pentium system with a 15-inch monitor, which is to become "entry level" for multimedia applications in 1995.

While a year ago the special video decompression board, ReelMagic, seemed to be the winning candidate for VCR-quality playback of video from CD-ROMs, it now is more likely that two software playback products from Xing Technology and Horizons Technology will be the big-sellers of 1995. They require powerful processors (the 90 MHz Pentium is ideal) and graphic accelerator cards with 2 MB RAM of their own, but these are not "extras" in the $3,000 category of the 1995 models. An important lesson is apparently being learned by the industry: Customers do not like to open up their computers and fiddle with boards, jumpers, and VGA feature connectors in order to add a $400 gadget.

In the audio arena, the surround sound and 3-D sound technology are the most interesting new developments, along with simulated stereo that can make monaural recording sound like stereo. …