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Multimedia: what's the compelling application?

MULTIMEDIA: WHERE'S THE COMPELLING APPLICATION? Suddenly, it seems that multimedia technology is popping up everywhere we look. Animation, 32-bit color, hypertext, multiprocessing, digital video, high-density storage, voice and music synthesis--all these scattered pieces have started to coalesce into a more-or-less coherent vision of the next generation of personal computing. The big hardware companies are all betting the farm on multimedia platforms; Bill Gates vows that multimedia will be "bigger than everything we do today"; and hundreds of entrepreneurs are crowding the starting line like runners at the Boston Marathon.

The trouble is, there's remarkably little consensus about how this cluster of raw technologies will turn into practical products. Analyst Tim Bajarin argues that multimedia is "still just a technology, not a market"; Apple's Jean-Louis Gassee goes further and warns that multimedia has become an "ill-defined and dangerous term."

One theory (popular at Apple and IBM) suggests that multimedia may never evolve into a conventional application category; instead, like desktop publishing, multimedia technologies will diffuse into many different applications and markets. On the basis of this share-the-wealth scenario, market researcher Bill Coggshall has predicted a four-way split of the multimedia pie by 1994: $6.3 billion for consumer applications, $4.42 billion for business presentations, $3.36 for information retrieval, and $2.51 for education and training.

We happen to think this theory misses an important point. Raw technology doesn't just trickle into the marketplace; it's almost always driven by so-called "compelling applications" (an overworked but still useful term). The popular model for multimedia these days is desktop publishing, a genuinely revolutionary technology that has come to pervade virtually all software that creates printed output. But it's worth remembering that the catalyst for this publishing revolution was a narrow, well-defined niche application: low-cost typesetting and page layout. Users didn't adopt raw publishing technology; they bought copies of products like PageMaker and Ventura, and used those products to perform real work.

Moreover, the early typesetting and page layout applications provided an essential feedback loop that helped publishing technology developers fine tune their own products. Even now, only a tiny fraction of people understand (or even care about) font imaging models and color prepress processes, but these niche issues continue to play a critical role in shaping the evolution of general-purpose hardware and operating systems.

So where is the crucial application that will transform multimedia from a glamorous technology into a practical application?

To start with, we don't think that the driving force behind for multimedia is likely to come from the business presentations market (too much effort for one-shot presentations, except for rare events like John Sculley's famous multimedia speech at MacWorld last January). We're also skeptical about the consumer market (no apparent way to use an existing infrastructure of talent and distribution as a springboard, as television, VCRs, and even videogames could). And we're lukewarm about most aspects of information publishing (limited profitability for authors and publishers). Admittedly, we've seen eye-popping demonstrations of products in all of these areas--but so far nothing has felt weighty enough to suggest the beginnings of a true blockbuster application.

What's left? Well, to us the real multimedia sleeper is the education and training market--schools, colleges, corporate training departments, and independent skill-teaching centers. Most of the market forecasters predict education and training will contribute relatively little to the growth of multimedia; our contrarian view is that interactive courseware, authoring tools, and simulation products will be the key application that kickstarts the whole multimedia phenomenon.

At first glance, of course, the education and training market is a pretty hostile environment for any hot new application. Teachers and trainers are chronically cash-poor, they tend to be conservative about new technologies, and the market as a whole is badly fragmented. Computer-based courseware companies have been struggling against these obstacles for close to ten years, and hardly anyone has figured out a profitable strategy.

Nevertheless, we feel strongly that the education and training market has the potential to sustain a classical "compelling application":

* Market momentum: Compelling applications tend to be born in niche markets, but the niche also has to be big enough to attract high-quality programming and marketing talent, investment capital, high-visibility competitors, and a rich aftermarket of add-on enhancement products, publications, service and support organizations, conferences, and the like. Education and training clearly has this kind of critical mass: The school segment is already Apple's second largest Macintosh market, and we've recently seen data that suggests that U.S. corporations now deliver 1.2 billion training hours a year. Moreover, educational expectations are rising: More than ever, people take for granted that they will acquire new skills, new knowledge, even new careers continuously during their working lives. (Secretaries used to be fully trained when they knew typing, dictation, and the filing system; now, just to stay at a basic level of competence they need to master a constantly changing stream of office automation technologies.) In short, education and training is a market that is already big and likely to get even bigger.

* High return on investment: Dan Bricklin points out that compelling applications tend to have extremely rapid payback periods, often of a month or less. An important promise of interactive courseware and simulation programs is that they allow a significant percentage of learning to take place outside of the classroom, without diluting the quality of the live teaching experience. The net effect is greater teaching productivity--that is, more hours of instructional output with no increase in the number of teachers or trainers. Especially within corporate training departments and colleges, it's conceivable that a one-time investment in instructional workstations could literally double the productivity of existing teaching staffs, as well as provide more flexible, on-demand forms of instruction. The cost of those workstations won't be trivial, but we expect that the payback will be almost as dramatic as it was for desktop publishing (publishing systems weren't cheap, either).

* Local power. Even when there isn't an explicit productivity gain, compelling applications tend to transfer control over work from central organizations (mainframe-oriented MIS departments, large typesetting houses, data processing service bureaus) to individual desktops. Our guess is that multimedia authoring programs will significantly democratize the courseware marketplace, by giving semi-professional users--corporate trainers, small courseware publishers, and teachers--the ability to create the kind of materials that now come almost exclusively from large publishers and audio-visual production houses. In the long run, giving such users the ability to create and control their own courseware may turn out to be the biggest attraction of multimedia authoring programs--and the source of a radical transformation of the educational marketplace.
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Date:Dec 13, 1989
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