OPTICAL disks called CD-ROMs are spinning in a growing number of computers.
Sales of CD-ROM drives more than tripled last year from 1992. Sales are expected to rise again this year by 50 percent. As a result, software companies are rushing to develop new programs for the technology.
``CD-ROM is a hot ticket item in the stores right now,'' says Stan Corker, director of removable-storage research for International Data Corporation.
A major reason for the growth: the dramatic drop in prices for CD-ROM drives. A few years ago, they cost nearly $1,000. Today, they are as low as $199. Mr. Corker estimates one out of every five computers sold today comes equipped with a CD-ROM drive.
As prices drop, CD-ROM software is burgeoning. ``I don't care if it's [about] Chevy spare parts - there's a myriad amount of information being published'' on optical disks, says Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. New titles range from games to reference works to inventories that businesses find more convenient to put onto CD-ROMs than print in books.
CD-ROM (compact disk, read-only memory) holds not only music but text, photos, and even full-motion video. Each disk can hold up to 660 megabytes of information - the equivalent of 471 floppy disks.
Some companies want to distribute software on CD-ROMs to eliminate the clutter of traditional floppy disks.
``It's definitely something we're looking at,'' says Joan Dyal, spokeswoman for Parsons Technology in Hiawatha, Iowa. Currently, the company's Quick Verse Bible program comes on eight traditional floppy disks. But adding a Bible translation means an extra three to four disks. Parsons sells seven translations.
Some software companies are already distributing programs on the optical disks.
In September, for example, WordStar International began selling the deluxe edition of the 10-disk American Heritage Dictionary on CD-ROM. ``We're certainly planning additional CD-ROM titles - like everybody else,'' says Eva Morrison, product manager for WordStar's consumer-products division.
The interest is not limited to software. Mr. Porter of Disk/Trend says the movie industry is looking at CD-ROM movie distribution, because production is far cheaper than today's videocassette tapes. Other companies are using the technology to enrich the current versions of their software.
Intuit Inc. has begun selling a deluxe CD-ROM version of its popular personal-finance program called Quicken. Besides the basic software, Intuit has added background articles on investing and personal finance, profiles of more than 6,000 stocks, and interactive work sheets. Intuit has even added 25 minutes of video, in which Wall Street Journal experts describe various financial markets.
``The real reason we went to CD-ROM is that our customers have been asking for more educational content,'' says Peter Dumanian, Intuit's product manager. Since the Menlo Park, Calif., company started selling the CD-ROM on Nov. 15, it has sold 30,000 to 40,000 copies to retailers - triple its expectations.
Tom McGrew, vice president of market development and product planning for Compton's NewMedia Inc., agrees. ``Multimedia is a new animal,'' he says. ``It has the intrinsic parts of video, sound, text, software, and game capabilities.''
This new genre is a far cry from the text-based CD-ROMs from a year or two ago.
Today's releases are not only much richer in sound and video, they are more versatile than books. Compton's ``Sporting News Pro Football Guide,'' for example, contains 33 minutes of video clips; the book edition only has photos. The disk has 10 years of statistics; the book has one. And users can sort the disk's tables on demand to look at, say, players' average yardage instead of total yardage.
``It's causing a new type of buyer to come into the marketplace,'' Mr. McGrew says - one who is looking for a mix of entertainment and information. Compton's new ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook'' is one example. Users can find the recipe for the Rockettes's Fudge Brownie Tart but also a video interview with Ivana Trump.
One barrier to CD-ROM acceptance is the personal computer's poor video performance. New technology now coming onto the market will eliminate some of the problems, but until it does, users will have to endure jerky video the size of a large postage stamp.
Even when these improve, some analysts doubt the technology will ever become standard computer equipment.
``I don't think we'll ever get to a point where the CD-ROM will have a penetration greater than 50 percent,'' says Corker of International Data Corporation. ``Unless you're needing data that's distributed on a CD-ROM, I'm not sure that you will buy a CD-ROM drive.''