CD-ROM 2.0

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In the early-to-mid 1990s before the widespread adoption of the web the world of interactive design resolved around content on CDs. You had companies like book publishers Dorling Kindersley and software company Broderbund publishing producing ‘interactive books’. Whilst they could be moved through in a linear manner, the software entertained with video and hyperlinks to related subjects.

The forerunner of web agencies designed CD-ROMs for clients as a kind of electronic catalogue or for use in a kiosk as a kind of absentee salesmen. CD-ROMs disappeared from prominence as the web took over and publishers like Dorling Kindersley went back to books (they used to do amazing feats of paper engineering in their pop-up books of the human body, but I am not sure what they are up to now). The closest most consumers have to CD-ROMs is the menu on their DVD or Blu-Ray discs.

CD ROM 2.0

Speaking to attendees at a publishing event at Olswang about the future of publishing: From Hardbacks to Hot Bytes, I was struck how much of what the future looked like CD-ROMs. Much of the pressure for this was that they were trying to build a new business model and were even experimenting to find out what may work. (Interestingly, all of them cited their peers in the music industry as people had got it wrong and as an example of what they didn’t want to be). I get a similar sense of that with publishers discussing their iPad applications. A blogger over at O’Reilly Radar recently published how the iPad currently lacked the kind of development tools previously available for the very similar task of creating interactive content for CD-ROMs.

A key challenge with content development is not only the tools but the skills and expertise. Does the publishing industry have the right people to produce the content of tomorrow? I don’t mean in terms of only interactive developers, but the authors to provide the right base content for the interactive experience to be built upon? And where does that leave people who self publish works or are part of a small independent publishing house. Assuming that today’s authors are up to the challenge, publishers still have to contend with the cost of production. The interactive nature of the content could also limit a publishers source of additional revenue: that of foreign language licence rights.

The rest of the world is likely to have commoditised e-readers that work to a common file format like a PDF and if the book doesn’t exist in that format, then the proprietary format that it is in will just be broken open. For all practical purposes content IP rights are indefensible: look at the way the music labels are damaged and the film studios under constant attack around the world.

Things get interesting when you think about the symbiotic nature of the content and the medium which conveys it to the audience, or as Marshall McLuhan claimed ‘the medium is the message’. The extension of this concept is the way many publishers are thinking that ebooks in whatever form they become are likely to be an ‘experience’, most likely with some kind of social element to it. To give an idea of what this must be like, you only have to look at The Leaky Cauldron, a news source and social network for fans of the Harry Potter series of books. This also takes publishers into the sometimes uncomfortable area of privacy.

Finally, for publishers there is the issue of convergence. When does a book become a movie or a game? Will film and games companies be interested in licencing books anymore? And if it is harder to define what a book is, how could it be exempt from VAT (UK sales tax)?

Some of these decisions may be out of the publishers hands. Amazon has developed a cloud based bookshelf that allow the reader to read a book on their laptop, Kindle or smartphone. Apple has optimised the book experience for its iPad and to a lesser extent its iPhone devices. Two different approaches, it will be up to the market to see who wins out.