Magazine article Information Today

Different Folks, Different Strokes: The Future of CD-ROM User Interfaces

Magazine article Information Today

Different Folks, Different Strokes: The Future of CD-ROM User Interfaces

Article excerpt

CD-ROM user interfaces (and CD-ROM columnists, for that matter) cannot please everyone. There is no interface which would get the unanimous vote as the best one, whether you pop this question in a classroom or at an information conference.

You may have a favorite CD-ROM software, but the database you need may not be available with that interface. The majority of CD-ROM databases are offered in one version, with one and only one user interface. This is very different from the online world where many of the databases are available through the software of at least four or five online services.

The CD-ROM era started with great promise for our being able to choose our favorite software with the same or almost the same datafile. The ERIC and NTIS databases were available from the outset with three software versions; the GPO datafile was published at one time on CD-ROM by six producers, offering six software versions; MEDLINE is still available from seven CD-ROM publishers. Not accidentally, all these databases are created from public domain files, so the publishers do not have to pay royalties.

A similar approach seems to emerge much more slowly with proprietary files. PAIS, MLA Bibliography, and the Boston Globe are now available from two CD-ROM publishers with different software, but they are the exceptions - so far.

The trend of making available one datafile with different user interfaces is likely to accelerate in 1993 when many of the exclusive agreements between the database publishers and the CD-ROM producers expire. Sociofile, for example, will be available not only with the Silver-Platter software but also with the much improved new version of CORE software from Compact Cambridge in early 1993. So also will be the clinical subset of PsycLIT.

Still, you as the customer will have to choose one version or the other, and neither may sport the user interface with which you or your patrons are familiar. Chances are that the next database the library acquires will still not be available with the software already known by the library patrons.

Government agencies, user groups, and CD-ROM producers all presented standardization proposals to alleviate the problem of learning different interfaces when CD-ROM databases of various publishers are to be searched. I will briefly and somewhat skeptically discuss these proposals, then present my own proposal. To better understand these proposals, let's look at the current practice first.

The Lock-Stock-and-Barrel Approach

At present, a CD-ROM producer seeks out a datafile, or a datafile publisher shops around to licence a software for creating and publishing a CD-ROM database. The original datafile is typically in a standard format which can be read by any decent text software. This file is used as a source file to create a set of index files through a database creation software. In this process the index files (and often the source file as well) become coded and readable only by the counterpart of the database creation program - the retrieval program. I call the combo of the proprietary master and index files dataware.

The retrieval program receives its instructions through a user interface program, and the results of the search are forwarded to the user by that interface program, as are the help and error messages. The retrieval program and the user interface program together make the search software. Currently, the master file, the index files, the retrieval program, and the user interface program are bundled when you license or buy a database.

This lock-stock-and-barrel approach makes it necessary for every user to learn the user interface component of each database that he or she wants to use. It may be a tedious task. At the University of Hawaii campus, for example, there are about 50 databases with a good dozen different software interfaces.

So what then are the official proposals to help alleviate this problem of the CD-ROM Tower of Babel? …

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