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CD-ROM/Online Hybrids
The Missing Link?

Richard R. Reisman


Reprinted from CD-ROM Professional, Volume 8, Number 4, April 1995

Preliminary electronic reprint - Figures not yet included.
Copyright 1995, Richard Reisman. All rights reserved.


The two most effective and popular technologies in electronic publishing and the much heralded information highway CD-ROM and online have complementary advantages and disadvantages. CD-ROM has evolved into a cheap, easy to use and powerful repository for all kinds of multimedia information. But because the discs are inherently static and unchanging, their content rapidly becomes outdated. Online services, on the other hand, have gained popularity by offering up-to-the-minute access to massive libraries and news feeds. However, online services can be expensive and difficult to use, while finding relevant information online is often frustrating and time-consuming.

The developing convergence of computer and communications technologies promises solutions to this dilemma we can enhance today's still-primitive online services to offer higher speeds, as well as easier access, navigation and control but the hard realities of infrastructure building will make that a long and turbulent evolution.

In the meantime, a significant, if partial solution to this dilemma is to combine these two current technologies. Such a hybrid, formed by embedding a specialized software communications module into a conventional CD-ROM product, maintains all the features of the original CD-ROM while adding an easy to use, inexpensive communications facility to retrieve updated information from a remote service. For a wide spectrum of applications this approach brings to CD-ROM products the immediacy of online access while retaining none of its disadvantages. And it does this with plain old telephone service.

The idea of combining CD and online has been germinating for some time. It first gained a degree of industry attention at the Intermedia Conference in March 1994, when Microsoft Corporation announced its consumer CD-ROM title Complete Baseball, which incorporated a modem-supported daily baseball statistics update feature. Wider recognition of its potential is still slowly growing.

Also growing are the tools and technologies to make CD-ROM/online hybrids not only possible, but likely, as seen by Microsoft's recent efforts and the successes of CompuServe and old CD-ROM/online pioneer Nautilus. The first serious signs of the new wave of hybrids may have been in August 1994, when a new service called Teleshuttle announced software and operations/support services to enable hybrids by any publisher.

SEPARATE SUCCESSES BREED NEED FOR HYBRIDS

Ease of use for CD-ROM is unparalleled, and because CD-ROM provides speed and high capacity, custom-designed user interfaces can readily be applied to simplify data access to the point that a pre-schooler can easily use it. This has resulted in one of the hottest markets, illustrated by discs such as Grandma and Me. The limitation of CD-ROM is that it is a static medium, which has a number of publishers moving to subscription update programs, and other publishers sticking with content that is, itself, static in nature.

The other big success story in new media is the emergence of online services. Internet user counts are now in excess of 5 million, by conservative reckoning, and commercial services like America Online are bursting at the seams. The appeal of these services is unlimited "information at your fingertips," as Bill Gates has tagged it. Anything from the "Great Books" and federal regulations, to the latest news and stock quotes, to the chatter of fans about the soap opera episode now airing on TV or the oddities of "alt.sex.bondage" can now be obtained on "the Net." Unfortunately, these services are still rather hard to use. First, just getting a modem to dial and connect successfully to a remote service presents a significant hurdle to most novices. Communications software ranges from arcane and complex to just moderately easy to use at best. Finally, the task of finding a desired information item may be a nuisance on the better designed services, and a labyrinthine quest through obscure terrain in the farther reaches of the Internet.

Compounding online's degree of difficulty is the fact that these services work on a subscription basis, rather than a discrete purchase, product basis. You can buy a CDROM as easily as a magazine or book, but to get information online you must subscribe to a service in advance. Consumer online services generally run about $10 per month, while also billing to an open credit card additional charges based on time used. They typically average about $20 per month. Business online services can run at $1 to $10 per minute, a rate that generally leads to very rationed use.

Because online services are operated as broad utility services, their user interfaces tend toward rigidity and are by and large less enticing than those provided with the better CDROM products. Current developments are gradually permitting more attractive and tailored interfaces, but the complexity of online communications and navigation will limit this for some time yet. An ongoing constraint of online services is the low speed of dial-up telephone communications, which are about 100 times slower than the transfer rate of a CDROM. Although this will change gradually over the next decade, as high speed network services are deployed locale by locale and compression techniques are improved, infrastructure issues will continue to limit the use of online multimedia to small numbers of pictures and sound bites for quite some time.

HYBRID DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY

The short-term solution that has been available for years is to build clever hybrids of CDROM title and online service. These hybrid technologies have begun to appear from both directions, with online services developing mechanisms to work with supplementary multimedia content on CDROM, and CDROM titles providing online access support for downloading update information. In the online oriented model, supplemental CDs can be sent monthly to subscribers for use in conjunction with their online sessions. The first such CD was delivered by CompuServe in June 1994, and similar offerings are expected from America Online, which builds on its acquisition of Redgate, and Ziff Interchange (or more accurately since the December 1994 purchase, AT&T Interchange), with all major online services thought likely to follow.

In an online oriented hybrid, the supplementary information distributed on CD can be artfully integrated during an online session to enhance the online experience; unfortunately, this approach will do little to open access to network neophytes. The hybrid from a CDROM-based orientation may stand a better chance of solving the access problem, through embedded communications modules that allow a user to retrieve updated information from a remote service, going online only when needed. Such a facility is easy to use--transparent, even--because its function is preset to work with that specific CDROM product, where the communications task is simply to call a designated number to obtain an information update and place it on the hard disk, making it available for use in conjunction with the existing information on the CDROM.

This CDROM-oriented approach follows the lead of professional products for obtaining stock quotes and other specialized databases, but has begun to enter the mainstream, as with Microsoft's Complete Baseball CDROM, which allows retrieval of a Baseball Daily newsletter. Other consumer CDROM titles are in development, such as a product for Kaplan's college preparation service being developed by Mammoth Micro Productions, and Microsoft Corporation indicates that similar functions will be added to many of its titles, including Encarta.

While the concept of communications enabled discs has tremendous potential, there is still a lack of tools and services needed for this approach to be fully exploited. The task of building and supporting CDROM with communications capability is beyond the expertise of most publishers. And the absence of an industry standard will tend to confuse users of various products that take individualistic approaches to the task.

In keeping with its strategy of complementing existing players, Teleshuttle is working with major authoring and database search software vendors to pre-integrate the Teleshuttle transporter with their products' user interface and data management functions. Teleshuttle currently is being developed to work as part of Folio Corporation's Folio Views, and Electronic Book Technologies' DynaText, as well as in collaborations with a number of vertical market companies.

THE TELESHUITLE APPROACH

Teleshuttle Corporation offers a specialized service that fills a critical gap in producing CDROM and online hybrid products. Teleshuttle's mission is to provide the transport software and services needed to enable hybrid CDROM and other similar media-based products.

Although some major players provide CDROM online hybrids on their own--Microsoft and CompuServe are two examples--few publishers have the resources and expertise necessary to build their own online connection, and most lack the scale to justify trying. Teleshuttle allows publishers to provide hybrid online services while avoiding the burdens of doing so. Teleshuttle is new and unique in providing the following:

  1. a packaged communications software module (the Teleshuttle transporter)
  2. a complete server operations and user support service (the Teleshuttle server)
  3. a design that facilitates embedding these features into the products of any publisher, affordably, and with a minimum of effort.

CDROM developers can easily integrate Teleshuttle's modular component to work under the control of their products. Instead of complex communications programming, developers need be concerned only with the simple program interface (an "API") that controls Teleshuttle requests, and with the end-use of the information packages themselves.

Because Teleshuttle's modularity concentrates all dependencies on communications technologies, it can be designed to evolve to new network technologies and client platforms as they mature. The first version of Teleshuttle supports Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, and direct dial or X.25 communications. Versions are planned for Macintosh, DOS, and other platforms, and for Internet, wireless, and cable television networks.

The Teleshuttle Service

Data communications remains a very arcane and troublesome technology. The technically adept can perform basic data communications chores reasonably well, but supporting national or global access from large, diverse populations is a daunting and resource intensive assignment. The Teleshuttle Service lets publishers and product developers out-source these tasks to Teleshuttle's staff experts in communications programming, wide-area network and server operations, and user support.

The economy of the Teleshuttle approach results partly from sparing use of network and remote resources, and partly from the flexibility and simplicity provided both publishers and users. This enables a very different business model Mom conventional online services, where prices can be based on flat onetime fees and included in the initial price of the product. A specialized, product-linked service can avoid the need for complex subscription or usage-based charging schemes, and the administrative burdens they impose; with Teleshuttle, the costs to a publisher or vendor may be as low as $3 to $5 per user, depending on the number of users and the total volume of data made available for transport.

Pricing for Teleshuttle is highly dependent on the specific choices from a wide range of options, with full service pricing currently administered on a special quote basis. Unit prices are keyed to the number of users actually utilizing the hybrid services, and not the total number of copies, to allow for wide distribution of products where usage of the online component may not be universal. Charges also depend on the average amount of data transmitted by users during a service contract period, and by the level of hours of user support provided (some publishers require only second-level support and only business-hours coverage).

While most users need no support, serving those that do involves significant expense. For low volume projects, minimum charges are negotiated to reflect the custom effort of setting up new and varying technical, operational, and business environments. The expectation is that such charges are to drop as Teleshuttle and its clients progress along the learning curve.

Pricing for in-house server options is significantly lower and more simple, since operations, end-user support, and related administrative costs are not involved. License fees start at $10,000 for a permanent license for a two-line server and an unlimited number of client module copies per product. This minimum system can support 500 to 1,000 users, assuming a moderate data volume. Pricing drops rapidly per additional lines for larger servers: a 32line server, for example, which might support 50,000 to 100,000 users, is $30,000. The servers use commodity DOS or Windows NT-compatible technology, so the associated hardware costs are low.

Although the simplest form is a onetime charge included in the product purchase price, customer charging may take a variety of forms. The flat fee would include rights to a set number of updates for a set period of time. Use of ordinary direct-dial phone lines--where users pay any long distance charges--further enables minimal fees, where the very short connect times prevent long distance toll charges from becoming burdensome. The classic publishing model of customer-paid Shipping" works in this model as long as the "shipping" cost is small.

Another charging method is pay-per-call access using 900numbers or credit card charging. "Try-and-buy" offerings can make some information available at no extra charge, with additional materials provided for additional fees, based on an electronic credit card order placed via the hybrid service. For commercial applications, catalogs, or other sponsored services, toll-free lines or national public data networks may be used, just as with the major online services.

Even for hybrids which link to a major online service, it may be desirable to offer the independent Teleshuttle option as well. This allows users anywhere in the world to obtain the basic hybrid service without need for a monthly subscription to the online service. The advantages are not only for the potential customer not desiring to join the online service--use of the Teleshuttle service also offers higher profitability to the publisher.

Still, a significant feature of the Teleshuttle approach is the ability to reach individuals who are not regular online users. While the number of online users is growing strongly, the 1994 Jupiter Communications Online Services Report projects that the total number of households with PCs and modems, but no online service subscriptions, amounts to about 15 million.

How The Hybrid Works

The way that conventional CDROM and online platforms compare is pretty straightforward: CD-ROMs hold content, with (usually) data and program files placed on the hard disk; online services provide content and programs, with the PC's hard disk holding data and program files. Hybrids combine the two capacities.

With hybrids, the CDROM is activated using an install routine that places control software on the hard disk, and that software is then used to view and search the data on the disc. In current practice, additional files, such as notes and annotations, may also be placed on the hard disk, since the CDROM cannot be used to store any new information. In such cases, the control software seamlessly combines the information from both the CD and the hard disk, with the user unaware of the two different origins. It is the same kind of seamless integration that is exploited by the hybrid.

With hybrids, such as those supplied with the Teleshuttle transporter, the CDROM title provides the user with a button or menu to use to select updates from a predefined list supplied with the title. Upon selecting an update, the title's control program invokes the transporter, passing control to the Teleshuttle transport module, which calls out to the remote server, identifies itself, and retrieves the desired update. The transporter then disconnects, unpacks and decompresses the update, and places it on the hard disk in a predefined location for use by the CD's control program, where the updated information is available for viewing and searching, just as if the new files had been there all along.

In fact, the CD-ROM title's control program need not be involved in any details of retrieving updates online, rather, it can simply treat the new information as just an additional database. It will often be desirable for the new information to be integrated with the old, however, to allow it to be viewed and searched seamlessly as a single database. This can be done without any modification to the original CDROM by making provision in the title's control program for a single user request to cause access to both databases in a coordinated fashion. All forms of access, including hypertext linkages, can be made to allow seamless integration of updated and original data, without any change to the original CDROM.

BUILDING ON THE HYBRID

A wide variety of functions can be based on variants of the CDROM/ online hybrid approach to network-enabled applications. Simple fetch functions can be combined to provide very powerful, open ended interactions. A CD can have a starter list of additional materials available to be fetched, and that list can itself be updated to open up access to unplanned additions. As with fax-on-demand, a whole set of information item catalogs can be available, each of which opens up a new range of current selections. The online connection can be automatically dropped after each fetch and reestablished for each new request, so there is no cost for extended periods of online "think time" while the user browses.

Another variant is to expand on the simple fetch-on-demand operation. For example, fetches can be automatically scheduled based on update availability, or be delayed to an off-hour, low-cost period. A more advanced option would be to shift from a user-triggered "pull" operation to a publisher-triggered "push" operation, where the server might automatically dial-out to the users whenever an update becomes available. (This has some obvious attractions, but it introduces significant problems, including failed deliveries if the user's system is not properly set to receive at the time the attempt is made, and the negative views of external access as a security exposure.)

Sending information into the central server is just as easy as fetching information out, which means that a wide variety of information collection applications, ranging from placement of catalog orders to user surveys and collection of registration and demographic information are enabled. For example, conventional CDROM catalogs require a customer to call a voice 800 number to place an order, but the hybrid technology supports the few mouse clicks needed to fill out an electronic order form and transmit it into the central server. In simplest form, these electronic orders would go to the merchant just like electronic mail orders, while a more advanced form could entail linking the server to the merchant's system to check credit and stock and then send back an order status report. Even in this full transaction scenario, the time online remains minimal, with no human interaction to extend it.

Catalog applications effectively illustrate the advantages of combined fetch and send usage. Fetches can be done to update the catalog with new and on-sale items, and sends done for ordering. Of course, the hybrid model is not restricted to CDROM; a diskette-based product such as a newsletter or an information-on-demand application can simply provide a browser program with an embedded transporter module that fetches information when desired. Indeed, several non-CD examples that use online connections to get stock quotes and financial reportsthe financial applications by Intuit (Quicken) and Reality (Wealth Builder)are, actually, among the earliest examples of consumer hybrid-style connections.

Hybrid Design And Business Issues

For the publisher or developer interested in exploiting hybrid technology, the emergence of services like Teleshuttle means that significant technical and operational barriers have been lowered. There remain many critical issues of product design to be considered, however.

The fundamental issue is how to combine maximum value in local and remote content. Static databases and rich multimedia content are best put on CDROM, and judicious use of relatively costly transmissions should be reserved for high time-value per megabyte content such as text or data and modest amounts of well-compressed image and sound files. Cost tradeoffs will vary with the nature of the target market, and the value of the content can increase or decrease in that context. Another major issue for publishers is the revenue model, and its relation to the selection of network service and charging mechanism.

There is also the basic question of how to balance occasional mailing of update discs with the alternative use of online updates, with the answer largely hinging on the size of such updates. For example, a $3 to $10 cost per user per year for the Teleshuttle service may be comparable to the costs for each monthly pressing and mailing of an update disc; in most applications, new disc editions will be needed periodically, perhaps yearly, depending on transmission speeds, hard disk accumulation demands, and requirements for huge update content.

Other issues include the design of the product control program or authoring tools. Some authoring packages offer powerful search and control capabilities appropriate for exploiting hybrids. Custom programming, while difficult and expensive, still offers maximum flexibility, particularly for complex data integration as with some financial applications that may require computations or other application-specific functions.

The need for timely support of content that hybrids demand may require editorial operations to gear up frequent cycles and short deadlines. Producing an encyclopedia, for example, shifts from a book-like process with update cycles in years, to more of a news-room or magazine-like process, with cycles in months or even weeks. The total amount of work may not increase much, but the way the editorial and production work is done becomes more time-sensitive. While this can be a significant change, it is likely one that will be required of most publishers in the not too distant future.

SO WHERE IS THE HYBRID? AND WHERE IS IT GOING?

The first product to use the Teleshuttle Update Service is Vista Intermedia's CDROM of the World Health Organization's International Digest of Health Legislation (IDHL). This disc provides users worldwide with quarterly updates to WHO's 10,000page infobase. The IDHL CDROM works with Folio Views, and is fully integrated to use this authoring and retrieval software's shadow file capability to combine updates with full-text searching. Additional Vista titles in the legal and healthcare market will be using Teleshuttle, and other Teleshuttle hybrids can be expected from major commercial and consumer publishers, as well as catalog and marketing companies.

The hybrid approach adds a useful perspective to the question of whether the CDROM will soon become obsolete, while showing that such considerations are largely beside the point. The specific CDROM format now in use may be rendered obsolete by higher density and writable discs, or another not yet familiar technology, but the need for high capacity local storage media, and the use of such media for cheap distribution of masses of information will not go away. Similarly, as high-speed networks are deployed, access to remote information will improve. But the case for a balanced mix of local and remote resources will remain, along with the desirability of simple, powerful software interfaces.

Nonetheless, the true essence of the hybrid concept is not the use of a CD, but the use of a local application with an embedded online component. From this viewpoint, the various hybrid examples can be viewed as points along a spectrum of distributed services, with purely local services at one extreme, and purely online services at the other. But even as the communications networks evolve, complex but seamless mixes of local and online services will become increasingly common. However, efficiency will continue to dictate that maximum use be made of local resources, which are generally owned and familiar, supplemented by sparing use of remote resources which are generally rented and less familiar.

It is reasonable to anticipate a wide range of extensions beyond the basic shuttle transport function of sending and fetching, but which, while providing more advanced online functions, will still retain the idea of embedding the online activity as part of a predominantly local application. Examples include embedding electronic mail functions and bulletin board access in off-line editor and browser programs. Another important example is interactive multi-player games, where the economy of the "brief blink" online gives way to a continuing online session mode, where the individual product application still controls the function and presentation of the online interactions. With a simple embedded transporter module, such online connections can be simplified and standardized.

As all the converging technologies mature in power and flexibility, the hybrid will blur into a seamless combination of full-function online services embedded into "local" applications that have complete flexibility in their look and feel, and use network resources only as needed. Ultimately, the networks will be fully transparent media, where the user will not need to know or care which application elements and data are local and which are remote.

But already, today, hybrid technology is in place.


SIDEBAR 1: CD-ROM/Online Hybrid Product Application Examples

UPDATES AND SUPPLEMENTS

Magazines: new issues
Newsletters: new issues
Encyclopedias: updates, new entries
Almanacs: updates, new entries
Reference libraries: updates, new entries
Financial data: latest prices, statistics
Legal data: regulations, cases
Sports: latest scores, statistics
Games: additional games, puzzles, etc.
Recipes: new recipes
Medical information: updates, topical features
Tax programs: revised forms, instructions
Catalogs: prices, new items, deletions
Software products: updates
Software samplers: unlock keys
Advertisements: additional information
Product information: new items, specs, supplements
Government information: regulations, forms

RESPONSES AND INQUIRIES

Catalogs: ordering
Surveys: responses
Polls and contests: responses, entries
Advertisements: electronic bingo cards
Customer information: registrations, demographics


SIDEBAR 2: Comparison of Delivery Technologies

                                         CD-ROM-Online-Hybrid

COMPARING BENEFITS TO THE END-USER
Fixed, low price                          yes           yes
Fast multimedia access                    yes           yes*
Ease of use                               yes           yes
Up to the minute content                         yes    yes
Open-ended content                               yes    yes
Basic 2-way communication                        yes    yes
Extended interactive communication               yes    future? 

(* for CD-resident portions)

COMPARING BENEFITS TO THE PUBLISHER/DEVELOPER
No communications programming             yes    yes    yes ** 
No communications operations              yes    yes    yes ** 
No communications user support            yes    yes    yes ** 
Low entry cost                            yes           yes ** 
Open to all publishers                    yes           yes 
Publisher creates any look and feel       yes           yes 
Publisher controls pricing                yes           yes 
Publisher controls distribution           yes           yes 

(** benefits supported by Teleshuttle, but not usually applicable to 
custom hybrid efforts)

Richard R. Reisman is president and founder of Teleshuttle Corporation, which, when announced in August 1994, was called Dynashuttle. Reisman previously co-founded UNET, a pioneering online service developer, and managed computer, communications, and information delivery operations for the Standard & Poor's unit of McGraw-Hill.

Communications to the author may be addressed to Teleshuttle Corporation, 799 Broadway, New York, NY 10003; 212/6730225; Fax 212/6730226, email info@teleshuttle.com.


1996, Teleshuttle Corp. All rights reserved


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The ghost of Teleshuttle past:  Pages retained for historical interest -- Not current, may have broken links


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