The emerging new forms of publication are commonly referred to by the jargon term multimedia. This is a rather vague word which is being much abused, but it does originate in a very substantial and important technological development. Therefore, while minimising the jargon and the technicalities as much as possible, I must try to give a concise idea of what multimedia is all about.
All traditional forms of publishing (both print and electronic) have been based on some specific, more or less restricted mode(s) of communication. Thus, traditional printed books allow only for static, graphical, information, be it text, photographs or diagrams etc. The various forms of audio media (cassette tape, audio CD) allow only for various kinds of sound - spoken text, music etc. Finally, the video media allow for dynamic, moving, pictures and animations etc. (but are not terribly good at handling text, for example).
The essential idea of Multimedia is to have a single (electronic) system which can effectively handle all these modes of communication. Thus it should be able to present information in a wide variety of forms, including (at least) high quality text, speech, music, diagrams, still photography, and even video. Ideally, this single publishing mechanism should be able to deliver comparable quality of presentation in each of these modalities as the previous individual, dedicated, systems could do.
The first major immediate benefit of multimedia publishing is in achieving integration between the different kinds of information. The practical implications of this multimedia integration were already sketched out in the prologue, where I described accessing a multimedia encyclopedia. This offered text and photographs just as one would expect from any conventional, printed, encyclopedia; but it also went far beyond the paper encyclopedia by being able to offer related audio, and even video, materials directly embedded in each article. Consider how this would have to be achieved using conventional means: the encyclopedia would firstly have to consist of several physically separate components - the printed matter and a selection of video and/or audio tapes; then, to examine all the materials associated with a particular article, one would have to separately locate the relevant sections in each different medium, and, if necessary, play each one back through its own dedicated player. This would be so slow and tedious as to render the whole idea totally absurd.
While integration of different communication modalities is thus a major advance, that is still not the most significant aspect of the new electronic publishing technologies. In my view, the most significant feature of multimedia publishing, which distinguishes it fundamentally from previous forms of both print and electronic publishing, is the potential it allows for almost instantaneous access to any arbitrary component of the published work. This means than the work no longer has be treated as a more or less linear, sequential whole, with just one path from the start to the end; rather one can embed links in the work between any component and any other component, so that it can be accessed following an almost infinite number of different paths through it, depending on one's interests or requirements.
It is almost impossible to explain the significance of this just by describing it, but in the prologue I tried to give some small insight into the potential. The first point was that, in the example of a multimedia encyclopedia, one could access any target article, via a conventional alphabetical index, much more quickly than would be possible with a printed encyclopedia. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. In accessing a reference work, such as an encyclopedia, finding one article is normally only a starting point. That article will list a variety of related articles, and these will list further articles and so on. With a printed encyclopedia, pursuing any one such link will typically mean a further search of the index to identify the volume and page reference, and then fetching another volume, and locating another page within the volume; whereas, with the multimedia encyclopedia, one can follow such links virtually instantaneously.
The advantages of this kind of crossreferencing, and almost instantaneous access, are most obvious in the case of reference material such as an encyclopedia. Indeed, as I already indicated, I think the benefits are so stark in such cases that the conventional printed encyclopedia is already, today, quite obsolete. But, even outside of conventional reference materials of this sort, these features of multimedia open up possibilities for entirely new kinds of publishing that, as yet, we can only glimpse.
Multimedia is likely to revolutionise our ideas of classroom presentation. Think for example, of the study of a Shakespearean play - Hamlet, say. Let us suppose that we are studying the character of Ophelia. With a multimedia version of the play, we could almost instantaneously access just those scenes in which Ophelia appears (or is referred to, for that matter) - either in text, or audio, or even video (depending on the scope of the specific publication). With conventional print media, this task would be possible, but extremely laborious; and with conventional audio or video (tape) material it would be practically impossible.
Another example: in teaching a language, a multimedia "textbook" would allow for instantaneous, synchronised, switching between a written text and its translation; or between words in the text and a translation dictionary, or grammatical tables, or audio/video presentation of the material.
Final example: in studying the history of the Second World War, multimedia publication could offer the possibility of scanning, almost instantaneously, an archive of newspaper and newsreel reports for just those which mention, say, "Ireland" (or "Irish neutrality" etc.).
In summary, multimedia publishing offers utterly new possibilities for the presentation and access of published work. These possibilities already offer compelling advantages for certain kinds of publication; but, even more importantly, they are likely to result in the emergence of entirely new kinds of publication, quite without parallel in conventional media.