I have tried to explain the potential for multimedia technology to allow fundamentally new forms of published work, which, in suitable applications, could be dramatically more effective than any previous publishing technology. This potential is especially evident in the educational field.
However, potential is one thing; realisation of that potential is quite another.
Before the potential can be realised, certain conditions must be satisfied. Preeminently, there must be standardisation of the format of multimedia publications - so that a standardised access or playback device can be guaranteed to access any publications in this format. As with any rapidly developing technology, there are many technically distinct ways of realising multimedia publications, all of which would be technically almost equally satisfactory (remember 8-track audio tapes and Betamax video?). But the growth of publication in multimedia form was bound to be seriously inhibited until a standard format emerged.
Multimedia standards are still developing, and it is likely that a variety of multimedia publishing formats will persist in different specialist application areas for some time. However, for general purpose multimedia publishing, including education, one format has already achieved a clear dominance: this is the so-called MPC format.
MPC is an acronym for Multimedia Personal Computer, and, indeed, an MPC system does superficially look very much like a conventional personal computer (PC). It typically consists of a typewriter style keyboard, a display monitor, a "mouse" device for moving a pointer on the screen, and a system unit containing the main electronics, the floppy disk drive etc. Commonly there will also be an attached printer, though that is not essential. Given all this it is not surprising that an MPC system can indeed be used for any of the tasks which a conventional personal computer can be used for - word processing, accounting etc.
However, these appearances are very deceptive. Although the MPC system looks (at first) just like a conventional PC, and can even be used like a conventional PC, it also differs fundamentally. Firstly (and invisibly) it requires substantially more computational "power" than a conventional PC, in order to do the relatively high speed processing required to present high quality interactive audio and video materials. Secondly, in addition to the conventional computer monitor an MPC system will normally have a pair of speakers for audio playback (though headphones can, of course, be used as an alternative). Finally, the system unit will be equipped with what is called a CD-ROM disk drive. CD-ROM disks look exactly like conventional audio CD's, and the CD-ROM disk drive will look much like a conventional audio CD player. But whereas an audio CD is limited to carrying audio information, in a more or less strictly sequential form, a CD-ROM, accessed through an MPC system, can carry any form of information (text, photographs, audio, even video), and allows for almost instantaneous access to any component.
CD-ROM disks are very cheap to manufacture. Even in quite modest quantities the production cost falls to about 50p per copy (the cost of the plastic box is comparable to that of the disk itself!). And they offer extraordinary capacity. In technical terms, a single CD-ROM can hold about 650 Megabytes of information. A single "byte" is roughly comparable to one character of printed text; so a single CD-ROM could hold over 650 million characters. While photographs, audio, and particularly video, materials are rather more demanding on storage space, the net outcome is that a single CD-ROM can quite feasibly carry more information than a 30 volume printed encyclopedia - not to mention augmenting this with audio and video materials! Furthermore, CD-ROM's are easy to store, and much more durable than printed materials. So we can look upon a CD-ROM, formatted according to the MPC standard, as the realisation of an electronic, multimedia, book; or, perhaps more accurately, as the realisation of a whole electronic library.
The MPC standard has been formulated by a body called the MPC Marketing Council. This consists of representatives of publishers and equipment manufacturers. The primary advantage of the MPC standard is not particularly technical, but commercial. MPC is an "open" standard. That is, it is not proprietary to any particular equipment manufacturer. Furthermore, many of the components of an MPC system are common to conventional, industry standard, personal computers. The result is that MPC standard components and systems are available from a wide variety of equipment manufacturers, at extremely competitive pricing. The cost is still by no means trivial - but it has fallen to the point where MPC systems are now probably within the practical financial reach of most, if not all, -primary schools in Ireland.
As a direct result of this, the take-off point for MPC CD-ROM publication has recently been reached - aided, particularly, by the aggressive entry of the Microsoft Corporation into the MPC publishing market. Microsoft is such a large company in the computer industry worldwide, that its adoption and promotion of MPC publication was bound to cause dramatic growth in the market. The number and range of MPC compatible titles has increased substantially over the past twelve months, accompanied by a steady downward trend in prices. Thus, for example, there are now three different, very comprehensive, encyclopedias, aimed at the primary and post-primary school levels, available in the MPC format. Furthermore, the price of the 1994 edition of the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia has fallen by more than 50% relative to the 1993 edition, even though it was already much less expensive than any comparable printed encyclopedia.