When Kari Rolander was assigned to do a report on Costa Rica in her sixth-grade class, her father gave her some assistance. Together they plugged a small compact disk into a unit attached to their home computer and quickly found the needed information. She submitted the report, received an A-plus, and the teacher's comment of ``excellent research.'' What made the research so successful was a single disk that contains the entire 21-volume set of Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia.
By doing quick word searches on the computer, additional information not easily found in the bound-volume encyclopedia was located under categories like textiles and coffeebeans.
Although other companies have looked into putting their encyclopedias on disks, so far Grolier's is the only one available to consumers.
``It's exactly the same little compact disk that's being sold in record stores. The difference is that you store computer information [on it] rather than storing music,'' says Gary Kildall, president and founder of Activenture Corporation, the company that created and distributes the software for the Electronic Encyclopedia.
Kildall goes so far as to predict that this initial venture into electronic publishing -- or books on disks -- will one day revolutionize the entire book-publishing industry. In the future, he asserts, portable computers will actually replace paper books, and consumers will be able to purchase old favorites like Alice in Wonderland on disk -- replete with animated drawings of Alice jumping down the rabbit hole.
Some critics, however, contend this is an overly ambitious view. No computer will edge out the handy, portable paperback, they maintain.
Kildall has been influential in the field of computer technology since the 1970s. He designed the first compact operating system for microcomputers and founded a $40 million company, Digital Research.
The book on a disk ``is one of the most significant technologies to come along -- as significant as the microprocessor,'' says Raymond Wasner, director of research at the Yankee Group, a high-tech research firm in Boston. ``It's happening very very quickly. It is something people dreamed about being able to do with microcomputers 10 or 15 years ago.''
The system consists of a $1,000 to $2,000 package of player unit and disks. At present, it can be plugged only into an IBM personal computer but will be adapted to other computer systems soon. The disk, called the compact-disk read-only memory (CDROM), allows users to read material without changing the fixed information. Advantages of publications on disk
The primary advantage of the CDROM is that it holds a tremendous amount of information in a very small space at a very inexpensive price. The Grolier's Electronic Encyclopedia, for example, costs $199 -- compared with $600 to $800 for the book set. And the whole encyclopedia takes only 20 percent of the space on one CDROM disk.
``There's a lot of interest from publishers,'' says Kildall. ``The advantage for Groliers is that the cost of production of a CDROM is only $2. They see it as a very good opportunity to get into the electronic publishing business.''
The encyclopedia disk has been available to consumers this Christmas, and Kildall says that about 10 more disk titles will be on store shelves in 1986.
Another advantage of having books on disks is the accessibility of information, he says. Information relating to a particular topic can be displayed instantly, which makes the CDROM a valuable study aid for students. Law and medical fields are also expressing interest, because the disks allow quick and thorough searches through vast amounts of material. Consumer use for the technology, however, is much farther on down the road, Kildall says. The Dynabook
The Dynabook, for example, is still in a conceptual stage. Originally conceived of in early 1970 by Alan Kaye, the Dynabook is a thin, portable, 81/2 x 11 computer-like device with a viewing panel. Much like a page in a book, the unit could have hole punches to clip it into a notebook. Users plug credit-card sized disks into it, and can browse, underline, mark pages, and access information. At some point the unit might be able to run on a hearing aid-type battery, says Kildall.
He predicts that a simple version of the Dynabook will be on store shelves within a few years, and that in 10 years it will be the only efficient way of delivering information. Initial animation will be crude, he says, but as the technology develops, the animation could radically change the textbook industry.
``Let's face it,'' he says, ``a lot of kids are not particularly interested in reading books. They've been zapped and zinged with dynamic, moving, graphic pictures. If we're going to present information to them in the next decade, or two, or three, we've got to make sure that our delivery systems are beautiful, reactive, fast, economic, and really present them with information as fast as they want it.
``What better way is there to teach about what planetary motion is all about than to have the little objects all moving around when you want them to? Here it is right there in the Dynabook. It's a great way.''
Wasner is dubious of Kildall's marketability predictions for the Dynabook, however, and says he is too ambitious with his estimates for production in a few years. He cites falling technology prices and dwindling innovation in the computer industry as two prime deterrents.
``But there's no question that it's going to happen,'' he agrees. ``He is seeing a new technology on the horizon that has tremendous capabilities coupled with computers.''
When asked about the inconvenience of taking a Dynabook to the beach or on a train, Kildall says there may actually be more pluses than minuses.
``When I go on a plane, I always think I'm going to have lots of time to read, so I pack my briefcase full of about 6 or 7 books. . . . The advantage of the Dynabook is that you take that one Dynabook and five little disks. If you get [around to reading] them, fine, but they don't fill your briefcase up.'' Will print become obsolete?
What about paperback books, newspapers, and magazines? Would they eventually become obsolete with an increase in electronic publishing?
``I believe that they will, and the reason is one of economics,'' Kildall contends, comparing costs with a printing company he once owned in Monterey, Calif.
``It's so much cheaper to produce a little piece of plastic than it is to run big presses with giant rolls of paper; to package a piece of plastic, throw it in an envelope, and put it in somebody's mailbox than it is to have tons and tons of papers delivered; and of course, the cost of the product is lower. If you [consider] all those things, I don't see how we can avoid it.
``I don't think there's going to actually be a major shift,'' he adds. ``It's going to be a kind of an erosion of the current printed page phenomenon.'' Disks replacing newspapers a way off yet
Replacing newspapers with compact disks is quite a way off, he says, because of the overnight production factor. But the incentive for this shift does exist. At present, it takes approximately 75,000 pine trees to produce one day's publication of the Sunday New York Times.
``One issue of the New York Times, that's, I would guess, maybe 1 percent of [one] CDROM [disk]. That's not a bad trade-off,'' Kildall says.
``I do agree with him that it's possible,'' says Wasner of the Dynabook, ``but I don't agree with his time frame. Perhaps within five years.''
Wasner attributes his skepticism to the fact that compact-disk technology is still in it's early stages -- he points out that there is now only one plant in the United States making these disks -- and that other forms of telecommunications such as computer data services would compete with newspaper disks.