No other new industry has gone through its early stages in quite the same way that multimedia has. In the first place, we all seem unusually confident about the destination. This is the delivery of fully interactive multimedia on to a screen in our homes, a new medium that combines all the attributes of its predecessors - text, sound, moving image - and adds interactivity, a new ingredient. Yet it will be as easy to use as a book or the radio.
This certainty about the end result is unusual; most new developments are the result of pioneers feeling their way, not being very sure about where they are going but determinedly pressing on, sustained by more or less blind faith.
Second, nearly every company that could play a role in the development is doing so. New industries are generally developed by a few brave visionaries working alone. Not this time. Hardware manufacturers, software producers, publishers, intellectual property owners - anybody with a relevant skill is participating.
It is as if every engineering business in western Europe and the United States had had a go at motor vehicle manufacture during the 1880s, as soon as the basic principles of the internal combustion engine had been enunciated, already understanding that the age of the automobile was nigh.
Third, the players with the greatest faith are found in the financial markets. Any company involved in developing multimedia which chooses to seek a stock-market quotation seems to be guaranteed a rapturous reception. A history of continuous losses does not seem to matter. Investors will value the shares at perhaps five to eight times annual sales compared with a long-term average for most companies in most industries of one to two times. There is no shortage of capital.
The phenomenon combines a spirit of adventure on the part of consumers with the mania of the gold rush, so far as businesses are concerned. Consumers are in a forgiving mood.
As an electronic publisher, I am glad to say that consumers become attached to their multimedia PCs and enjoy playing CD-Roms, accessing the Internet, visiting Web sites, even though all multimedia products at present have technical shortcomings.
As far as CD-Roms go, we have not yet reached the stage of "plug in and play". With the Internet, the chances of accessing a chosen site quickly depends upon what time of the day it is. Once North American users get going during the day, the speed of the Net declines markedly.
But the users put up with this, as they did with jerky, soundless films in the early days of the cinema or with crackle and hiss when the first radio sets became available. …