the CD/Web

Standards from the Web and the CD-ROM Time Machine

Ron Gustavson, Guest Columnist
EMedia Professional, March 1997
Copyright © Online Inc.

Walking past the racks of CD-ROMs at any software store is to stare in the face of obsolescence, planned or otherwise.
In the H.G. Wells novel, The Time Machine, an unnamed scientist is transported to the year 802701 A.D. where a girl, Weena, and her compatriots, the Eloi, live in relative splendor--except for the dark nights of the new moon when monstrous subterranean Morlocks come out of their holes to cannibalize them. View this as an analogy of how newly installed CD-ROM titles--with "updated" drivers, conflicting DLLs, and the casual overwriting of specific setups--can wreck your PC's operating system.

But back to the story: In trying to come to an historical grasp of the situation, the Time Traveler discovers the Palace of Green Porcelain. In the book, he picks up some matches and Camphor oil to fight off the beasts, but in the 1960 film version, Rod Taylor, as the Time Traveler, and Yvette Mimieux, as Weena, have a more vivid experience. There, in the Palace, Yvette/Weena produces three large metallic rings that she spins on a table and history is retold through multimedia and disembodied voices. Yvette, I believe, was using Java-enabled rings.

You often hear the complaint about CD-ROM that once the polycarbonate is cast, the data becomes fixed in time. It's not an argument that bears much discussion. Facts are facts.

But you don't hear that much about another time-related limitation of CD-ROM titles that load with an executable. Such software too is tied to a point in time--and technology--that is becoming increasingly narrow, and it is another fact of life that the various files titled Setup.exe are inhibiting longevity of any software product. Walking past the racks of CD-ROMs at any software store is to stare into the face of obsolescence, planned or otherwise.

But the problem of such executables can be much worse: for any given unknown product, the immediate reaction one feels is dread, and increasingly, people find themselves asking, "How much damage can this disc do to me?" For a software application or utility that will be used every day over a period of months or years, the dilemma of installation is no problem, but for an entertainment title that may be of interest for only a short period, the chance system hit from a WIN/SYSTEM change gets weighed, one might guess, like the heft of a revolver in the hand during a round of Russian Roulette. Do you feel lucky today?

And then there is the problem of the older title, such as a desktop reference that should at least function for years, where the compiled program needed to access the content can easily enough become a hindrance. The analogy is having printed a book that can only be read with glasses ground in 1956.

This is serious. The future of the human race rests in the balance. If Yvette's magic rings had had to rely on a DLL from the year 802601, or required a video driver from 1997, where would Rod Taylor have been in his quest for truth and resolution?

Although installed titles can be more automated, richer in multimedia, and faster in operation than non-installable titles, the congruence of powerful MPC-3 consumer machines, 12X CD-ROM drives, and advances in Internet-based standards and languages is making non-installable titles more competitive--especially when seen in terms of longevity. And longevity, of course, adds to a title's intrinsic value. Unfortunately, this is usually not a quality that concerns developers eager to turn over titles and repeat their success with an update some months down the road. But in today's competitive marketplace, longevity should be an important factor, at least for some types of titles.

Recent Internet-based technologies are ripe for CD-ROM implementation. There is the arrival of improved VRML 2.0 browsers that use OpenGL, DirectX, and Intel RSX audio, adding better rendering of multimedia to the mix. HTML 3.2 has style sheets, offering rich, consistent presentations across an entire archive, and the <Object> tag that inserts any applets and rich data forms with a single entity. Sun Microsystems' Java JDK 1.1 comes with built-in JDBC support, for database connectivity. With just-in-time (JIT) Java compilers, there's new hope for speeding up Java performance. And then there is the proposed XML markup language that may finally take SGML out of the hands of the priesthood. And, of course, there is all the work being done on ActiveX and Java Beans.

While adoption of these formats is usually seen in terms of their seamless integration with the Internet for CD-ROM/ online hybrid titles, the standards that they embrace are also useful outside of networked settings. For a future library-- the Palace of Green Porcelain, perhaps?-- the existence of benign standards-based CD-ROM or DVD media is a firm solution.

At least theoretically. Among the answers still not known is when such titles will be made. There is already some history of HTML data-formatted discs, accessed through browsers, but more robust CD-ROM titles, relying on the concepts of portable virtual machines not targeted to any specific platform or generation of silicon, are barely being talked about today by the CD-ROM development community, never mind being published.

Maybe that's because backward compatibility currently is as much an issue for Internet standards as it is for versions of DLLs and OCXs. While HTML 3.2 capable browsers can digest HTML 2.0 with ease, for example, the same can't be said for current VRML 2.0 browsers. And now that the 1.1 version of Java is available, backward compatibility will again be an issue for many new applets and browsers (although Java's dynamic loading of Class Libraries over the Internet should allow for new applets to supply the needed new classes for browsers that are still using Java 1.0.2). Using Internet standards that are still very much in flux won't solve universal access problems, but widely used and accepted standards will.

Such changes could have profound effects. The much-touted Network Computer, for instance, could very well become the preferred device for business and educational environments, and provide a market incentive for "benign" information discs. Not that anyone should hold one's breath waiting: presently, the PC market is too tightly linked to games, which are the least likely to adopt a non-install model.

After all, games such as Id Software's Quake or Doom require fast processors and multimedia-capable platforms to run optimally, and while advances in Java and VRML could be the ticket for future PC games, the speed inherent in the present platform-specific executables is as yet unmatched by Net standards. But even the folks at Id might take notice if their next game could be easily accessible to users of Macs as well as PCs without having to produce a separate version.

And as the PC platform's quickly and continuously increasing capabilities get pushed by the title software, user problems may grow as quickly, despite Windows 95's hopeful helping hand. When installation of a title overwrites the latest version of QuickTime, Video for Windows, or a few key DLLs, the recovery process can be, at the least, upsetting, as anyone who has recently weathered a poor install routine and then had to rescue a system from random and unannounced changes will attest. And recall that the Microsoft Knowledge Base is replete with footnotes concerning the unwanted replacement of certain DLLs. Too often titles are being released with buggy install routines that result in days of lost productivity; the user is given only an icon to click on, and then his or her fate for the next few days is in the hands of Redmond.

It remains a fact that any ASCII text CD-ROM from 1986 is more useful and valuable than an executable from the same year. Except for the most rare, basic programs, executable files from the past are mostly obsolete in terms of GUI, multimedia, database access, and networking. But ASCII, having been based on an open standard, is still readable to this day, and the value of an ASCII title is based on its content not its presentation. What a concept!

Just as CD-ROM has taught the value of standards to the electronic publishing world, the Internet and its standards hold important lessons for CD-ROM, beyond the benefit of online hybrid information updates or improving the connection between buyer and seller, in the form of long-lived information titles with agreeable personal computer system relationships available widely across platforms. Sounds like Utopia without the Morlocks to me.


Ron Gustavson is a Medfield, Massachusetts-based photographer, musician, freelance writer, and late night explorer of the Web.

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