Computer Chronicles Revisited 104 — Boeing 757 Maintenance Manual, Microsoft Bookshelf, the Visual Dictionary, and the N/Hance 525E

At the 1985 summer Consumer Electronics Show, Jack Tramiel’s Atari Corporation demonstrated a CD-ROM drive running the Grolier’s KnowldegeDisc, a digital version of the Grolier’s encyclopedia based on software created by Gary Kildall’s Activenture, Inc. At the time, Tramiel and his team said they would soon ship a working CD-ROM drive for its new Atari 520ST computer that would cost no more than $500.

It was a ludicrous promise. The companies actually developing CD-ROM players in late 1985, such as Sony, Hitachi, and Philips, were all quoting retail prices of between $700 and $1,000. Even Tramiel knew that he wouldn’t be able to deliver a $500 CD-ROM drive in 1985. That didn’t stop him from continuing to promise it in 1986 or 1987 or 1988, however.

By the time this next Computer Chronicles episode first aired in late February 1988, Stewart Cheifet’s cold open featured him proudly standing over the Atari CD-ROM drive–now known as the Atari CDAR-504–proclaiming that after years of hype and hoopla, the company was now finally ready to begin shipping the device. Cheifet said the CDAR-504 could not only read data into your computer but would also play music off of audio CDs, all for around $500 $600.

Now, as I discussed in my post on the previous Chronicles look at optical storage devices from November 1985, Atari never managed to ship the CDAR-504 in any significant numbers. Indeed, two years after Cheifet proclaimed Atari would finally release the CD-ROM drive, Tom Byron wrote in the Atari-focused computer magazine STart that now, for real this time the product would ship to retailers. Well, maybe:

Rick Meyer is Atari’s product manager for the CD-ROM and he is well aware of the CDAR’s stormy past. Despite that, he remains optimistic that a product will ship as planned.

“Drives are out to developers and the CD-ROM is on the verge of shipping in the United States,” Meyer told START. He further explained that he is negotiating with some of the “major software houses” for their retrieval software, a move that would definitely widen the CD-ROM’s consumer appeal.


No formal rollout for the CDAR504 is planned; it will be like other ST peripherals, sold direct through Atari dealers.

Digging through sporadic newsgroup posts from the time, it seems that some development units did make it out into the wild. The feedback from those users was that the CDAR-504 played music CDs just fine. And it could also read CD-ROM data from any disc, including those formatted for Apple or MS-DOS. But in the absence of any Atari-specific control software, there wasn’t much the ST could actually do with that data.

Replacing Binders and Microfilm with a Single CD

Turning to back to our episode, we dispensed with the normal introductory host banter and went right into a product demonstration featuring Gary Kildall on the guest side of the table. Joining Kildall was Chris Bowman, the director of marketing and sales for KnowledgeSet Corporation. (Kildall changed the name of Activenture to KnowledgeSet after Activision, the game publisher, complained.) Cheifet noted that Kildall was always excited about CD-ROM technology. Why?

Kildall said CD-ROM was a brand new medium for publishing. It was based on the same technology as CD audio, and you had the advantage of being read-only. While some people saw that as a disadvantage, the read-only limitation actually made CD-ROM a very good publishing medium. It was also very high capacity.

Kildall then showed off a CD-ROM version of the Boeing 757 Maintenance Manual that KnowledgeSet produced for the Boeing Company. The disc covered an entire set of manuals, including 12,000 pages of text and 4,000 drawings, which normally required about 140 pounds of paper. The obvious advantage to the CD-ROM, Kidall said, was that you had the entire thing on one disc rather than a bookshelf full of paper manuals or five rolls of microfilm.

Bowman then conducted a demonstration of the Maintenance Manual. The user interface presented a visual representation of a bookshelf that served as the main menu. The user selected a manual to view. This brought up the manual’s table of contents. The table was presented as a hypertext document, so the user could click on an individual item to go to that section. Bowman noted there were also hyperlinks embedded in the text of a section that referenced drawings and figures. He clicked on a figure of a 757 wing and showed how the user could zoom in on the drawing to get a closer look at a particular part.

Continuing, Bowman showed that by hitting the F2 key, the user could split the screen horizontally between text and graphics. Hitting the key again would split the screens vertically. This made it possible for the user to scroll and read the text while keeping the drawing fixed on screen. Bowman also showed off the full-text search capability of the CD-ROM. The user could search the entire database for a specific word or combination of words. You could also enter a specific chapter and section and go right to that area.

Kildall reiterated the advantage of the CD-ROM was that you had all of this stuff on a single disc instead of having it on rolls of microfilm. This was especially important for the aerospace industry, as planes were very complex machines. So in order to remain current with all of the maintenance requirements, you basically had to keep that information in electronic form.

CD-ROM Helped Poison Control Officials in S.F.

Wendy Woods presented her first remote segment from the San Francisco General Hospital’s Poison Control Center, where the staff used a CD-ROM database called Poisondex. (This same product was previously demonstrated in-studio during a November 1985 episode on computers and medicine.) Woods said the use of CD-ROM had made a big difference in the staff’s daily routine. Dr. Kent Olson, the director of the Poison Control Center, told Woods that the biggest advantage was efficiency. Most of the calls to the center were urgent and in many cases emergencies. This meant the staff needed to find information within no more than a few minutes and relay it to a doctor or parent over the phone.

Woods added that along with speed of access and a simple interface, Poisondex offered a much greater depth of information about a toxic substance, including its degree of toxicity, the antidote, and symptoms. Staff members could begin a search with a brand name, generic type, or group. Even the code on a tablet or capsule was enough to track down its composition. The system then responded with a breakdown of ingredients and the proper treatment.

Before the CD-ROM system was installed, Woods noted, the staff had to rely on binders filled with about 200 microfiche cards, which were still on hand in case of a system failure. The Poison Center’s dedicated staff handled over 50,000 calls per year, sometimes of a life-threatening nature. The CD-ROM library made their job easier, faster, and perhaps just a little less stressful.

Microsoft Offered an Entire Reference Library on CD

Steve Michel and Bruce Phillips joined Cheifet and George Morrow, who took over as co-host for the remainder of the episode, for the next studio segment. Michel was the west coast editor for the magazine CD-ROM Review. Phillips was a product manager with Microsoft.

Morrow opened by noting that CD-ROM Review was the first publication to address the interaction of personal computers and CD-ROMs. He asked Michel how old the magazine was and who were the target readers. Michel said the first regular issues of CD-ROM Review came out in March 1987. The magazine had been publishing bimonthly but planned to start going monthly this year. The focus was on people who were publishing data on CD-ROM and developing products to use with it, as well as members of the general public. Morrow noted that there weren’t many “end users” of CD-ROM right now.

Chiefet said there had been talk about CD-ROM for the past couple of years, and it seemed like a market waiting to happen. Was it about to happen now? Michel said that we were right on the verge of it happening. There needed to be a couple of more good software products, such as additional encyclopedias and applications that demonstrated the interactive capabilities of CD-ROM. Morrow interjected that a little more aggressive (lower) pricing wouldn’t hurt, either.

Cheifet then turned to Phillips and asked about his company’s product, Microsoft Bookshelf, the first “major horizontal application” for CD-ROM on the PC. Phillips said that Bookshelf worked with a CD-ROM drive. For the demo, he used an Amdek Laser drive, which worked with any IBM PC or compatible. Bookshelf came on a single disc, which looked the same as an audio CD. (The Amdek also played audio CDs.)

Phillips explained that Bookshelf worked with your computer’s word processor. It could also work as a stand-alone program if you wanted to do pure research. In his demo, Phillips had a letter opened in a word processor. Bookshelf operated as a memory-resident utility that could access ten different reference works on the CD-ROM. Those reference works included a thesaurus, dictionary, spelling checker, usage alert, the Chicago Manual of Style, an almanac, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, business information systems, a U.S. ZIP Code directory, and a package of forms and letters.

For his sample letter, Phillips used the ZIP Code directory to find the missing ZIP Code for his addressee. He noted that the traditional ZIP Code directory was a two-volume set and laborious to work through. But with Bookshelf you could call up that information in two keystrokes. The process took about three seconds. And with one more keystroke, the ZIP Code was automatically inserted into the letter.

Phillips then demonstrated the included American Heritage Dictionary, which he noted contained the full text of the original. In the sample letter, Phillips looked up the definition of “occultation.” He called up the dictionary from the word processor and it brought up a screen containing the full definition. You could also switch between the original word processor screen and the dictionary screen. You could also paste the definition from the dictionary into the letter and the word processor automatically reformatted the text.

Morrow noted the use of different colors for the text in the dictionary screen. Phillips explained that in a print dictionary, you would see italics and boldface used. Since Bookshelf was a character-based application, it used colors to represent that formatting. Phillips added that Bookshelf was also Microsoft’s biggest product in terms of data, containing over 200MB. But it was also the lightest since it was on a CD-ROM as opposed to a floppy disk.

Using Multimedia to Teach Language Skills

Carolyn Kuhn joined Cheifet and Morrow for the next segment. Kuhn was president of Austin, Texas-based Software Mart, Inc. Her company was developing a CD-ROM product called The Visual Dictionary. Steve Michel also remained for this segment.

Morrow noted that Kuhn would be demonstrating her product on a Macintosh. Was the software limited to that platform? Kuhn said no. She said Visual Dictionary was an interactive, multimedia application of CD-ROM developed using MediaMixer, which was transportable. So Media Mart was developing its application for Macintosh, MS-DOS under Windows, the Atari 68000-based machines, and even the Apple IIe.

Cheifet asked Kuhn to explain and demonstrate Visual Dictionary. Kuhn said it was a language instruction tool being developed by Software Mart for two different publishers, U.S.-based Facts on File and Canada-based Les éditions Québec/Amérique, who created book-based products that her company was now converting to CD-ROM. The CD-ROM version added audio pronunciation to all of the content, images, and text in the print editions.

Kuhn then demonstrated Visual Dictionary on the Macintosh. She pulled up a picture of spores. The picture included both the English and French terms (both “spores”) and provided an audio pronunciation. Kuhn noted that Visual Dictionary used actual digitized recordings of human speech as opposed to computer-synthesized speech. You could also point to specific parts of the image–such as the stem of the spore–and the software automatically provided the terms in both languages and their spoken pronunciations.

Morrow asked if something like hypertext could be used in conjunction with Visual Dictionary so that teachers could develop supplemental material for language classes. Kuhn said there already was a built-in feature called “Mark Place,” which enabled teachers to create custom tours of material on the disk, both audio and text. There was also a “Drill and Practice” module that allowed the user to link and pictures and audio terms from the language database to create their own computer game-like session.

Morrow asked Michel for his opinion of Visual Dictionary. Michel said he liked the way it combined graphics, text, and sound, thus demonstrating the full potential of CD-ROM. If you had a lot of room on a disk, you could put a lot of different types of information on it. Morrow said it could make an interesting vertical product for schools.

Cheifet asked Kuhn about the target market for Visual Dictionary. Kuhn said the publishers were aiming the product at teaching foreign language and English as a second language in schools, at the university level as well as secondary schools. She thought there might also be demand in the consumer market and for certain multinational applications where custom dictionaries of terminology might be of interest.

Morrow clarified that Kuhn didn’t see her software replacing language teachers but rather helping to make them more productive. Kuhn said yes, she saw Visual Dictionary as supplemental material. It provided instructors with a large database of quality-assured pronunciation and voice inflection rather than simply audio cassettes or relying on a local teacher.

Cheifet asked Michel if the average consumer should go out right now and buy a CD-ROM drive to run something like Visual Dictionary. Michel said when there were a couple of more applications like this around, he could see it as a viable purchase for the home. Morrow added that it would also be useful for organizations that had to do language training.

Cheifet asked about the price of Visual Dictionary. Kuhn said the final pricing had not been determined. The production version would include Spanish, French, and English with over 5,000 terms in each language. Kuhn expected the final price to be under $1,000 for all three languages.

EA Had High Hopes for CD-i

Wendy Woods returned for her final remote segment, which featured that old standby Electronic Arts. EA was doing early research into another form of optical storage technology called Compact Disc-Interactive (CD-i). Specifically, an EA team created a prototype for a CD-i program that led the user on a tour of the company’s offices on a mission to “find information on the sudden kidnapping of the CD-i team.” Woods explained this was meant to be a simulation of what CD-i was supposed to do. Using a trackball as a pointing device, the user moved among real video images–not just computer animation–and heard real stereo digital sound.

Greg Riker, a CD-i developer with EA, told Woods that since the company’s founding they had been looking forward to the time when they could deliver interactive experiences combining very-high quality audiovisual media. In this case, combining television-quality graphics, digital audio, the quality of compact discs, and the high performance of interactive computing systems. And EA felt that CD-i was the first piece of hardware that combined all of those attributes into a single player.

But Woods cautioned that the CD-i player wouldn’t look anything like the hardware EA used to create its simulation. The consumer version would be a small box that hooked up to a television set. And while the technology was still in its infancy, CD-i players were expected to become major consumer products by late 1989, with manufacturers projecting sales in the tens of millions of units. And EA was planning to become the leading provider of games and other software for this new medium.

N/Hance Offered “Write Once” Optical Storage Option

Timothy J. Green and Barry Braden joined Cheifet and Morrow for the final segment. Green and Braden were the president and western area sales manager, respectively, for Massachusetts-based N/Hance Systems.

Morrow opened by noting that N/Hance produced optical storage devices called WORMs. What did “WORM” mean? Green said it meant, “write once, read mostly.” But he preferred to describe them as writable optical drives. He explained that N/Hance started four years ago by recognizing the need of people to store a large amount of data, yet there was no cost-effective way of doing so.

The N/Hance drive, called the N/Hance 525E, used special cartridges that contained CDs with a storage capacity of 240MB each. He added that N/Hance would soon release a model with over 1GB of storage.

Green inserted a demo cartridge into a 525E drive built-in to an IBM PC. He pulled up a directory listing of the cartridge, which the system recognized as the D:\ drive no different than a hard disk. Morrow noted the WORM disk broke the 32MB barrier. (The MS-DOS file system of this era could not recognize volumes larger than 32MB, which usually meant splitting larger disks into smaller individual volumes.) Green said that was correct. The user could set a partition size of any size based on their application and the 525E’s software would take care of the file system automatically.

Continuing the demo, Green showed the computer recognized a 120MB disk, which represented the storage capacity of one side of the cartridge. (Both sides were usable, adding up to 240MB.) He then copied files from the PC’s hard disk to the 525E cartridge to demonstrate the speed of the copy routine using the standard DOS copy command. (Actually, this was a proprietary command unique to the file system software.)

While the copy routine completed, Cheifet asked Braden what kind of user needed this massive storage capacity. Braden said many of their customers were handling large amounts of data. They took data from the bottom of the sea and used the rugged optical disk instead of magnetic disk out in the salt water because the optical disk was something that would be around for a long time. Lawyers also used the optical disks for litigation support, i.e., their depositions and pleadings. That gave them a fast, efficient way to search for information later, as opposed to thumbing through a lot of paper.

Morrow asked what input devices did people use to get those kinds of documents onto an optical disk. Braden said some used video cameras. Others used bitmap scanners.

Returning to the demo, Green showed a sample record from a database containing an employee ID system. The database combined images of the employee’s photographs and signatures with text information. Green noted that each image took up about 120KB of storage. Morrow asked about the cost of the 525E system. Green said the price was currently $1,599 for an internal system like the one used in the demonstration.

Cheifet asked if having erasable optical drives would be important to opening up the market. Green quipped that everyone had been waiting for erasable technology for some time. But he thought a writable optical disc like the 525E addressed a specific market niche where the need to retain information was critical for a professional or legal reason, while an erasable optical disc would tend to be more competitive with magnetic disk drives. Morrow observed that a lot of people thought of the write-once optical as a transition product, but the longer we waited for read-write optical, the more permanent a device like the 525 appeared to be.

Green added that N/Hance would shortly be introducing the 525E on the Sun Microsystems computer and the Apple Macintosh, and later in 1988 they would start seeing a “stackable” drive that could store over 100GB of information inside of a computer. Morrow asked how long it would take such a drive to switch between individual cartridges. Green said between 5 and 7 seconds.

The “Slow-Motion Fiasco” of CD-i

As this episode made clear, CD-ROM was nowhere near a consumer-level technology in early 1988. The only hint of a consumer application came from Electronic Arts, which was swimming against the tide by trying to develop for CD-i as opposed to the more widely accepted CD-ROM standard. This was in keeping with the mindset of EA founder (and two-time Chronicles guest) Trip Hawkins, who previously tried to focus the company on the Amiga as its lead platform. That effort didn’t work out much better than CD-i. The ever-present Jimmy Maher of The Digital Antiquarian offered a postmortem in a 2018 article on what went wrong this time:

EA embraced CD-I with the same enthusiasm they had recently shown for the Amiga, placing Greg Riker in personal charge of creating tools and techniques for programming it, working more as partners in CD-I’s development with Philips than as a mere third-party publisher.

Once again, however, it all came to nought. CD-I turned into one of the most notorious slow-motion fiascos in the history of the games industry, missing its originally planned release date in the fall of 1987 and then remaining vaporware for years on end. In early 1989, EA finally ran out of patience, mothballing all work on the platform unless and until it became a viable product; Greg Riker left the company to go work for Microsoft on their own CD-ROM research.

Philips, the Netherlands-based electronics conglomerate, was the main backer of the CD-i standard. It managed to ship its first CD-i player in December 1991. But at an initial retail price of around $800, it wasn’t exactly a strong competitor in the home entertainment market. When Philips finally abandoned CD-i in 1998, the company had reportedly sold only about 570,000 players in total, according to Blake Snow of GamePro.

Meanwhile, EA’s Hawkins would leave the company he founded in 1991 to start another venture, The 3DO Company, where he would try to thwart the video game dominance of Nintendo and Sega by creating his own CD-ROM-based console, also called the 3DO. It only cost $700. It failed yet managed to sell better than the CD-i, with GamePro estimating the final number of 3DO units sold at around 2 million.

“A Bunch of Librarians Talking to Each Other About Microfiche”

Returning to our early 1988 timeframe, it’s amusing to realize just how small the CD-ROM market was when this Chronicles episode first aired. A January 1987 report by Christine Winter in the Chicago Tribune cited industry analysts who estimated that there were only between 6,000 and 7,000 total CD-ROM units in the U.S. market. Another report from the New York Times in March 1987 cited a figure of 12,000 units sold based on estimates from Microsoft executive Thomas Lopez. He added that there were only about 130 total applications developed for CD-ROM, mostly replacements for paper manuals and online databases.

By March 1988, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates claimed there were about 50,000 CD-ROM drives in use. Jim Bartimo of Knight-Ridder cited analyst figures estimating the total sales of CD-ROM hardware and software for 1988 at $262 million, with that number growing to $1.4 billion by 1990. Gates himself told Bartimo that he believed a “CD-ROM drive could come standard with every $1,000 personal computer” by 1991.

Obviously, Gates had a vested interest in his prediction, as Microsoft was one of the earliest champions of CD-ROM software. The company hosted its third annual CD-ROM conference that March, just a couple of weeks after this Chronicles episode aired. Among the 600 attendees was Apple CEO John Sculley, who announced his company would be the the first major computer manufacturer to sell a CD-ROM drive at retail. And unlike Jack Tramiel, Sculley was as good as his word. Within days of the conference ending, newspaper ads started touting the new AppleCD-SC drive for $1,199. (Hey, Sculley never promised it would be cheap.)

Although there were less-expensive CD-ROM drives on the market for as little as $700, that was still too high a price point for mass consumption. And few consumers were as excited as Bill Gates and Gary Kildall over the use of optical storage for weighty reference materials. As one analyst told Bartimo after the Microsoft event, “The CD-ROM conference is like a bunch of librarians talking to each other about microfiche.”

Not surprisingly, though, people who wrote for a living tended to take a more positive view of the potential for CD-ROM as a reference tool. Allen Connery of the Calgary Herald wrote in December 1987, “Fellow writers, I have seen the future, and it is expensive, but it works.” Connery thought paying CA$1,795 for a CD-ROM drive and Microsoft Bookshelf was practically a bargain, given the word processor integration and on-line search functionality.

Another writer, Dan Gutman of the Miami Herald, was equally impressed with Bookshelf but worried about the potential drawbacks for society if CD-ROM caught on with the masses:

I’ve seen Microsoft Bookshelf in action and it’s very exciting. All these useful reference books are literally at your fingertips resting on the keyboard. You hit a key and a book jumps to the screen. My concern is that Bookshelf and the arrival of CD-ROM software points towards increasing computer potatoism.

[ … ]

I don’t know about you, but I like to take my fingers off the keyboard now and then. I need to get up and walk around the office while I’m working. If I stare at my computer screen for more than an hour or so, my eyeballs start falling out of my head. I look like something out of Night of the Living Dead.

[ … ]

Personally, I would rather read something from a piece of paper than a glowing screen. The more they put on the screen, the less anybody has to move a muscle. The result will be a more sedentary life style than office workers already have. Is anybody at the American Medical Association looking into this?

As a final note, Bookshelf did not originate as a Microsoft product. The previously mentioned Thomas Lopez founded a company called Cytation Incorporated in January 1985 to develop a CD-ROM reference disk that was initially called CD-Write. A year later, in January 1986, Microsoft acquired Cytation and named Lopez as vice president of its new CD-ROM division. CD-Write was then renamed Microsoft Bookshelf, which shipped in September 1987.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and was first broadcast during the week of February 24, 1988. The video on the Archive is a rerun broadcast during the week of July 21, 1988.
  • Paul Schindler’s software review for this episode was Accolade’s Test Drive ($40 on PC), a racing game.
  • KnowledgeSet’s production of the Boeing 757 Maintenance Manual involved a fairly complex alliance with Sony. KnowledgeSet and Sony formed a third company, Publishers Data Service Corporation (PDSC), and Sony created a fourth company, Digital Audio Disc Corporation (DADC). Sony provided the hardware, KnowledgeSet created the search-and-retrieval software, PDSC handled the data preparation and tape mastering, and DADC performed the actual CD-ROM manufacturing.
  • N/Hance Systems was active from 1988 to 1992. The N/Hance 525E demonstrated in this episode retailed for $3,995. The hardware was actually an Information Storage Inc. 525WC drive combined with the proprietary N/Hance file system software. Simson Garfinkel, an MIT student in the early 1980s, developed the write-once optical file system and served as N/Hance Systems’ chief scientist.
  • Chris Bowman started his tech career at Atari, Inc., before moving to KnowledgeSet. After leaving KnowledgeSet in 1991, he spent two years as a senior product marketing manager at Adobe. In the early 2000s, Bowman shifted careers and became a high school teacher in Washington State.
  • Dr. Kent Olson earned his medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He became medical director of the Poison Control Center at UCSF in 1983 and held that position until he retired in 2017.
  • Steve Michel worked as a columnist for MacWeek and authored a handful of computer books, including Steve Michel’s SuperCard Handbook (1989) and The Best Mac Tips Ever (1994). His tenure at CD-ROM Review was brief. The magazine debuted in June 1986 but ceased publication in December 1988. James McBrian of IDG Group, the magazine’s parent company, told the Boston Globe in 1990 that CD-ROM Review failed due to the lack of widespread adoption of CD-ROM drives at the time.
  • Carolyn Kuhn started Software Mart Incorporated in 1983. She previously worked for Control Data Corporation. Software Mart produced a number of early CD-ROM titles for the IBM PC and Apple platforms, including The CD-ROM Developer’s Lab (1989), a reference guide to publishing CD-ROM software.
  • Greg Riker is an electrical engineer by training. After spending the 1970s working in the music industry as a performer, recording engineer, and producer, he transitioned to the computer industry in the early 1980s. Not long after his Chronicles appearance, EA promoted Riker to be vice president of new technology. But as Jimmy Maher noted, Riker left EA after its CD-i development ended. He then joined Microsoft as director of its advanced technology group. Riker later assumed responsibility for the company’s early push into home automation technology, Microsoft Home, before leaving Microsoft altogether in 1998.
  • Barry Braden started his career in sales at Sony. He recalled to Kenny Gould of Forbes in 2019 that after spending 20 years in tech with a variety of companies, including N/Hance Systems, he decided to get out of the industry in 2001. Braden then had a stint in nonprofit management as chairman of the Endangered Species Coalition. But he decided he wanted to do something more entrepreneurial again, so he co-founded Fieldwork Brewing Company, a craft brewery and taproom, in 2014.