An Elegy for the Multimedia CD-ROM Stars

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process and piece together thousands of photographs and hire art critics to write essays about 327 separate paintings. But it was a grand experiment, for these productions, which are long since out of print, reached a level of elegance, sophistication, and intelligence that has never been topped.

A Passsion for Art - CD-ROM Cover(The curious can still find used versions of some of the titles on eBay. And in a blessing for art lovers, the Barnes Foundation commissioned a remastered version of A Passion for Art—complete with stereo sound, millions of colors, and 1024×768-pixel image resolution—in 2003. It’s available for $35 from the foundation’s online gift store).

But slack demand and poor marketing are only part of the explanation for the brevity of the CD-ROM’s Golden Age. With the spread of broadband Internet connectivity around the turn of the millennium, Web surfers gained access to growing amounts of multimedia content online—I hardly have to describe the deluge of digital videos, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and other material now available from the likes of iTunes and YouTube. And as soon as the old input/output limitations on home computers began to lift, the CD-ROM—which can hold only about 650 megabytes of information—began its slide into antiquity.

There’s a funny thing about resource limitations: they tend to inspire artists to amazing heights of creativity. Now that bandwidth is, for all practical purposes, free and unlimited, it seems that no one in the community of Web designers and developers bothers to create tightly scripted interactive multimedia productions of the caliber that Corbis and other houses achieved in the 1990s using technology much less advanced than what’s available today.

Many of the conventions of the old CD-ROM format could be profitably reinvented and adapted for the new era of broadband, wirelessness, 3-D graphics, and high-definition displays. But aside from a few projects using platforms like Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight, I haven’t seen anything that approaches the standards set by Corbis more than a decade ago. Schumpeter watched capitalistic societies engage in a continuous, technology-driven overhaul and called it “creative destruction.” But sometimes it’s just plain destruction.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Wade – great article. I remember just around the height of the mid-90s there was an almost fever pitch by marketing execs to produce a CD-ROM…must produce a CD-ROM…must produce a CD-ROM. Glad to see that era go!

  • Now this will date me a bit, but the biggest memory I have of this time (aside from what CD roms meant for computer gaming!) is doing my college search through a stack of CD-Roms.

    Looking at engineering schools in the mid/late ’90s meant that each school attempted to prove technical prowess by adopting a digital version of its guidebook.

    Just as you described, college websites were vastly limited by dialup capabilities and thus far too simple and dull to show off a campus- but CD-Rom enabled a full on promotion.

    Incidentally the higher-ed market holds stake as a prime example of the technical adaption over the last decade. While in college I helped build sections of the school website; once graduated I had a project building a “virtual tour” for prospective students of another school; and then eventually built social networks around an admission office.

    But back to the CD-ROM bit. I’m glad to see them go, physical media is so 2003…

  • Bob

    Is there any way to play the CD-ROM on windows7. I have a disc for Leonardo but it isnt supported by the new software,